WestJet offers to help Calgary couple bring Ukrainians to Canada, but only for this month

·3 min read
Michael Garnett and Rebecca Rider spent nearly two months in Poland and Ukraine working on the ground with refugees before launching their buddy pass program and starting their charity, Help From Canada.  (Lucie Edwardson/CBC - image credit)
Michael Garnett and Rebecca Rider spent nearly two months in Poland and Ukraine working on the ground with refugees before launching their buddy pass program and starting their charity, Help From Canada. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC - image credit)

WestJet is offering a Calgary couple's charity some temporary support after initially shutting them down late last week.

Michael Garnett and wife Rebecca Rider — a pilot for the airline — have been using donated employee "buddy passes" to get hundreds of Ukrainian refugees to Canada over the course of the past four months.

Buddy passes are standby tickets an airline gives to employees as a perk to share with family and friends. The passes are free but users still have to pay the taxes.

On Thursday, the Calgary-based airline asked them to stop using employee buddy passes in that way, saying they have other established programs to support charitable causes and refugees.

50% off until the end of September

But Monday, after CBC News published a story about it, WestJet offered the couple's charity 50 per cent off codes until Sept. 30. Garnett says that while it's something, it's a very short-term compromise.

"They're offering us tickets at about three to four times the price we were paying for nine days, so we're not incredibly happy with that offer. It's something, it's a starting point, but that's not going to bring a lot of people here," he said.

"We've looked around and scoured the internet for the best prices to get people over in the most efficient way, and we know that that's through our buddy pass program."

Others offer assistance

Garnett says there have been positives in the past week as well for their charity, called Help From Canada.

Monetary donations have come in, and he has also heard from a Montreal-based airline, Air Transat, who he says offered to work with the charity on discounted flights for Ukrainian refugees.

"They've reached out and been incredibly helpful," he said.

"They've been working with an organization called 4Ukraine.ca, and they've been doing a fantastic job … and they're going to do everything they can for us to get discount codes for the short term, but also to build a partnership with us in the long term."

In a statement, WestJet said that following an application made on Sept. 18 through its Airport Community Giving Program, the airline's community investment team provided the charity with details the following day on how it could work together, which included an offer to provide promo codes.

"This process has not changed and it's an important clarification that the offer of discount codes was not facilitated in any kind of exceptional manner, it was based on a long-standing formalized process already in place," said spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

"Support has been available since May 2022, and WestJet originally provided this charity [or its] affiliates with support through an internal request in May 2022 with identical flight discount codes."

In an earlier statement provided to CBC on Sunday, the airline said buddy passes are to be used "solely for personal leisure travel."

"They are not a guaranteed mechanism for travel as they are offered on a standby basis only and can result in situations where users are not able to complete their travel journey," said spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

'We can give them reassurance'

Garnett said Help From Canada has always been aware these passes are for standby travel only, and have still succeeded at bringing nearly 200 Ukrainians to Canada.

"This is the conversation we've been trying to have with WestJet since last Thursday. They said they had some concerns and instead of talking through those concerns with us, they just said shut it down," he said.

"Of course we have a convincing plan. We've been doing this for about four months now and we have host families in Dublin, in Paris, in Barcelona and in Rome. We have a group of nuns that take in people when they don't get on their first flight.

"So in my mind, if they had concerns about these things, all they had to do was ask. We can give them reassurance."