Claims explode due to pandemic, leaving compensation fund unable to reimburse Quebec travellers

·5 min read
More than a year after their Morocco trip was cancelled due to COVID-19, Annie Roy and Kevin Major are still waiting to be reimbursed by the Compensation Fund for Customers of Travel Agents. (Hugo Lalonde/CBC - image credit)
More than a year after their Morocco trip was cancelled due to COVID-19, Annie Roy and Kevin Major are still waiting to be reimbursed by the Compensation Fund for Customers of Travel Agents. (Hugo Lalonde/CBC - image credit)

After surviving esophageal cancer, Kevin Major decided the best way to celebrate was with a trip to Morocco with his wife last April.

The couple had dreamed of seeing Casablanca and spending a night in the desert.

But two weeks before they were supposed to leave, worldwide travel ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nearly $9,000 trip was cancelled.

At first, Major, 57, wasn't worried. He had gone through a licensed travel agent to purchase his trip. As such, it was covered by the Compensation Fund for Customers of Travel Agents, better known by its French acronym, FICAV.

Managed by Quebec's Office of Consumer Protection, the fund can reimburse travellers in certain circumstances such as a hotel going out of business, an airline filing for bankruptcy or a storm cancelling a flight or cruise.

But nearly a year after he filed his claim, Major, along with thousands of Quebecers, is still waiting to be reimbursed.

"They cannot tell us when or how things are going to be paid back," said a frustrated Major, who lives in Boisbriand, an off-island suburb. "We have no news. Absolutely no news."

Class action lawsuit filed in December

Created in 2004, the FICAV charged consumers a small premium when they booked with a travel agent licensed by the Office of Consumer Protection — a few dollars per every thousand dollars worth of trip.

When the fund grew to $140 million, the premium was waived and the protection is now offered for free.

What no one predicted was a global pandemic. Thousands of people saw their vacation plans derailed when travel restrictions caused widespread flight cancellations.

Thousands of Quebecers saw their holiday plans derailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of Quebecers saw their holiday plans derailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.(Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

In Quebec, there are more than 35,000 claims to the FICAV, totalling more than $100 million dollars.

However, this exceeds the compensation threshold set out in the FICAV regulations, which prohibits more than 60 per cent of the fund being allocated to a single event.

Last summer, Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who oversees the consumer protection, took aim at credit card companies and insurers for failing to reimburse consumers.

Many Quebecers paid for their trips with a credit card, which often includes insurance, or had separate travel insurance. But so far, no one is budging.

"We find that it's not acceptable," said Christian Azzam, a lawyer with Donati Maisonneuve, one of the Montreal law firms who launched a class-action lawsuit against the FICAV this past December. "It seems like everybody is waiting for someone to move. They are kind of buying time."

So far, about 200 people have signed on to the lawsuit, said Azzam.

A preliminary hearing is set with a Quebec Superior Court judge on May 11 but the hearing to authorize the class action is not yet scheduled.

The Office of Consumer Protection is contesting the lawsuit.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

However, there may be some good news.

Last month, the federal government and Air Canada reached a $5.9-billion financial aid deal.

As part of the relief package, the airline agreed to refund customers who had their trips cancelled last year because of COVID-19. Air Canada has two months to refund its clients.

A similar funding agreement, worth $700 million, was worked out between the federal government and Air Transat late last week.

Air Canada is supposed to start issuing refunds to travellers soon, under the terms of an agreement reached with the federal government.
Air Canada is supposed to start issuing refunds to travellers soon, under the terms of an agreement reached with the federal government.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Those customers have until the end of August to submit a refund request and that includes those who were originally offered a travel credit or voucher.

Ottawa is still negotiating with Sunwing and WestJet airlines for separate aid packages, but Moscou Coté, president of the Quebec association of travel agents, anticipates those deals could be worked out in the next few weeks.

"Whatever is left is about $50 million dollars, so there should be sufficient funds to ensure the proper functioning of the fund," said Coté.

Élisabeth Gosselin, a spokesperson for the province's justice minister, said the hope is that federal financial assistance will be offered to the entire travel and tourism industry — not just airline carriers but travel agents as well.

If this assistance continues to be conditional on refunding customers, it would reduce the value of the claims to the FICAV, creating some much-needed breathing room.

"We want the best possible compensation for Quebecers," said Gosselin in an email to CBC. "If the FICAV dealt with the requests at this stage, consumers could only be partially reimbursed."

Couple will reinvest in travel

Major and his wife booked their flights with Royal Air Maroc, so the federal relief packages won't help them directly, but they hope it could leave the FICAV some room to start reimbursing people.

"That would be really cool," said Major.

When they get their money back, they plan to reinvest it into travelling.

This Christmas, they booked a trip to El Salvador.

They went through a travel agent again, but this time, to be extra safe, bought $100 worth of insurance through Air Transat, which allows them to cancel for any reason, right up to the last minute.

Morocco is still on their bucket list, but they are holding off until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.