Travelling during Omicron? Prepare for headaches, Edmonton travel agent says

·3 min read
In the wake of mass WestJet flight cancellations, passengers are struggling with being able to contact the airline about alternate arrangements. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)
In the wake of mass WestJet flight cancellations, passengers are struggling with being able to contact the airline about alternate arrangements. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)

A surge of Omicron cases, winter weather delays and staffing shortages has created a perfect storm for air travellers across the country.

As many Canadians scramble to rearrange travel plans in the wake of the Omicron surge and mass flight cancellations, an Edmonton travel agent says travellers will need to be patient and expect to wait many hours to reach an airline representative by phone.

"Probably the most difficult to get through right now is WestJet, their hold lines can be, gosh, seven, eight, nine hours to get through to them," said Rhonda Sveahun, a travel agent with Paull Travel.

Sveahun said that while airline schedule changes have become a regular part of the pandemic, over the last month things have escalated, and frustrations are climbing.

"Over the Christmas season there were more people that were travelling, and due to weather delays and the Omicron variant has kind of put more challenges into play," she said.

Sveahun said people who booked trips on their own are reaching out to her office for assistance with getting through to airlines, but she said they can't help people in that position because of privacy issues with reservations.

Paull Travel.
Paull Travel.

She said travel agents acting on behalf of their clients also have to call and wait in queue for hours.

WestJet is requesting that only customers with a flight in the next 72 hours try calling, and Sveahun recommends people who have several days before their flight go to the WestJet website and request a call-back.

But if the flight is imminent, the only option is to call and hope to get through.

On Dec. 30, 2021, WestJet announced it had been forced to cut 15 per cent of its scheduled flights through the end of January because so many employees are out sick with the Omicron variant.

On Tuesday, a WestJet spokesperson declined an interview request and directed CBC to a webpage where it is updating the projected number of flights to be cancelled, as well as a tally of the number of staff with confirmed cases of COVID-19, which was at 362 that day.

"We could not have anticipated the rapid and unpredictable impact of the Omicron variant on our people and operations, coupled with prolonged frigid temperatures across Western Canada and global staffing shortages," WestJet's interim chief executive Harry Taylor said in a statement on Dec. 30.

WestJet is not alone, as hundreds of flights across Canada operated by Air Canada, Flair or other airlines were cancelled over the holidays.

Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, is advising travellers whose flights have been cancelled or changed on short notice is to take advocacy into their own hands.

"For most passengers, as I see it, the way to go is to document what they're doing … and then to sue the airline in small claims court and getting recovery that way," said Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights.

Lukacs advises documenting conversations with airline staff over the phone and in-person, and taking a photo or video if a traveller arrives to find their gate or check-in counter abandoned.

Travellers can also claim compensation for cancelled flights and other trip disruptions through the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

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