When Expedia told Ian McGrath that his March 13 return flight from Ghana to Senegal was cancelled — two days before take-off — the Canadian immigration officer scrambled to make alternate travel plans.
But his real troubles began when he discovered that his flight actually wasn’t cancelled. To make matters worse, neither McGrath’s online travel agency, Expedia, nor his carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, automatically refunded the $1,047 he spent — on a flight he never took.
McGrath spent close to four months trying to get his money back from Expedia. A week after CBC News contacted the company on July 2, it finally reimbursed him.
“That I have to go to such lengths to get a refund is kind of incredible,” said McGrath who flew to Ghana to interview refugee claimants who want to come to Canada.
“I feel like if I hadn’t gone to media … I never would have seen the end of this.”
When passengers have a dispute with their airline, the rules are pretty clear. Canada’s new federal air passenger protection regulations lay out standards of treatment for airlines, and dissatisfied passengers can file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency.
But when customers have a gripe with their travel agency, the route to a resolution gets more complicated. That’s because travel agencies fall under provincial jurisdiction, so the regulations — and a customer’s options — vary by province.
“That seems to be what we have in this country, it’s a patchwork,” said Heather Craig-Peddie, vice-president of member relations with the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies. “It is very confusing for consumers.”
‘No end to this’
After months of trying to collect his refund, McGrath decided contacting the media was his best option.
He first realized something was amiss after arriving at the airport in Accra, Ghana, to take his rebooked flight — which cost him an added $989. When McGrath checked the departure board, he discovered that his original flight — which Expedia had told him was cancelled — had actually just departed.
“Smoke came out of my ears,” he said. “I was just so upset.”
According to online correspondence with Expedia, on March 15, McGrath began to inquire about his $1,047 refund for the flight.
Expedia responded that a “specialized department” was working on the case. McGrath continued to pester the agency both online and by phone over the next three months, and even threatened legal action.
Meanwhile, Expedia repeatedly told him that Ethiopian Airlines must cough up the refund and that it was still looking into the matter.
McGrath also emailed Ethiopian Airlines several times and got no reply.
“I just was feeling a bit like banging my head against the wall,” he said. “There just was no end to this.”
Who’s to blame?
After CBC News reached out, Expedia told McGrath he was getting a full refund.
As for who’s to blame, the agency said that, according to its records, Ethiopian Airlines had cancelled McGrath’s return flight because he was mistakenly marked as a “no-show” for his initial flight to Ghana — even though he had boarded the plane.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian Airlines told CBC News that it hadn’t cancelled any flights. It suggested that Expedia had triggered the cancellation by misreading an airline code, so it appeared that McGrath was booked on the now-defunct KIWI International Air Lines.
Expedia’s cancellation notice to McGrath did incorrectly indicate he was booked with KIWI International for part of his flight.
“The misinformation seemed to have emanated from Expedia,” said Ethiopian Airlines spokesperson Hailu Woldekidan in an email. “We kindly advise … our customer to take up the issue with whoever released the false cancellation notification.”
Despite Ethiopian’s response, Expedia denied any responsibility.
“We will continue to work with the airline to make sure our travellers have the best possible experience, and as part of that commitment we processed the refund,” Expedia spokesperson Mary Zajac said in an email.
Who can I turn to?
Besides the media, where can travellers turn when they have a gripe with their travel agency?
Because McGrath booked his trip using Expedia.ca — which is based in Ontario — he could have filed a complaint with The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO), which administers the Ontario Travel Industry Act.
“We would look at it and go, ‘OK, was there a contravention of the Act, did something happen here and is there a way we can find a resolution?'” said Dorian Werda, TICO’s vice-president of operations.
Currently, only Ontario, B.C. and Quebec have set regulations governing travel retailers and a provincial regulator that consumers can complain to if they have an unresolved dispute.
Customers dealing with travel agencies in the rest of Canada can turn to other consumer complaints bodies such as the Better Business Bureau. They can also complain to the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies — but only if their agency has opted to become a member — which is voluntary.
Werda said Canadians would be better served if there were a national protection scheme for all travel industry customers.
“We would love to see something across Canada. That would be wonderful.”
But even national rules wouldn’t protect a customer who uses a travel agency not registered in Canada. In those cases, consumers have no domestic recourse.
So when booking online where an agency’s location is less obvious, Werda recommends that consumers check before they click and purchase.
“Look at the URL, look where you are, who you booking with? Who are you giving your money to?”