PHOTO: Surinderpal Gill trusted the travel agency where he bought tickets for a family trip to India two years ago. (Kimberly Ivany/CBC)
But then he found himself out more than $5,200 and his trust broken.
Last June, Air Canada sent All Link Travel, based in Toronto, three vouchers to compensate Gill for return flights that were cancelled as aviation ground to a halt amid the pandemic.
But instead of telling him, Gill says the travel agency repeatedly said there was no sign of the valuable travel documents. It then used those vouchers to pay for trips for other people.
“I feel like I have been betrayed,” he told Go Public, shaking his head in disbelief in his Brampton, Ont., home. “How can somebody use my money without my consent?”
Gill is one of thousands of Canadians who’ve battled for months over travel vouchers issued amid the pandemic. Many say the very travel agencies they used are compounding their problems getting vouchers or refunds from airlines.
“The bane of our existence … the infamous travel voucher,” said Richard Smart, CEO and registrar of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO), which regulates travel agencies. “Complaints have gone through the roof over the last two and a half years.”
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) says it, too, has received thousands of such complaints — almost 9,000 since the pandemic was officially declared in March 2020.
After Go Public got involved, the agency repaid Gill.
Gill, his wife, two sons and five other family members were in India that March, and were desperate to find a way back to Toronto after their return flights were cancelled.
He paid almost $11,000 for four tickets to get his immediate family on a flight organized by the federal government; almost triple the usual cost.
Surinderpal Gill was angered by his travel agency’s use of his travel vouchers for other customers, and suggests an alternate way airline refunds should be administered.
“There were no more options,” he said. “We had no choice.”
When Air Canada received a government bailout in April 2021 and promised to compensate travellers whose flights had been cancelled, Gill waited a couple of months and then called his travel agency to find out when his vouchers were coming.
“They said they don’t have any information,” said Gill.
He says he called several more times over the next few months and, each time, was told Air Canada hadn’t emailed any vouchers for him.
Last December, Gill asked Air Canada directly. He was told All Link had had the vouchers since June.
The airline sent him the same email it had sent All Link, which included a PIN, to log in and check the balance. That’s when Gill learned the vouchers — worth $5,277 — had been almost completely drained.
“I was angry,” he said. “This is misuse of money.”
The agency claimed the vouchers had been used by mistake — three times.
“I said … ‘Don’t make up that story,'” said Gill. “‘It’s not one coupon, it’s three coupons. If it’s a mistake, write me a cheque.'”
Gill says the Air Canada rep confirmed the vouchers had been used to purchase airline tickets for people with an entirely different family name.
Vouchers can be used for other customers, said TICO’s Smart, but only “if the original customer gives permission.”
All Link Travel declined an interview request. Instead, a representative — who would not provide his name and called Go Public using a blocked phone number — promised several times to send a statement, but never did.
Gill says he’s grateful to have his money back, but the experience was exhausting.
“Everything has worked out,” he said. “At the same time, I still have the feeling that this should not have happened.”
Gill says it’s problematic that airlines send vouchers to customers’ travel agencies. Since the emails include a booking code and PIN, agencies are able to use the vouchers.
“The travel agency has not paid for my ticket, so why is the money [voucher] going back to them?” he said.
Gill’s is not the usual type of voucher complaint TICO has received in the pandemic, says Smart.
He says the regulator has been swamped with complaints about the length of time it’s taking for travel agents to provide airline travel vouchers, the hours customers are spending on the phone dealing with agencies and airlines, and a desire for cold hard cash instead of a travel credit.
Another big complaint are the fees travel agencies are charging to release the vouchers, says travel industry expert John Gradek, a faculty lecturer at McGill University’s aviation department.
They replace the commission agencies lose when flights get cancelled, he says, and typically range from $75 to over $200 per ticket.
“Welcome to the world of unregulated charges,” Gradek said. “[The fees are] a commercial agreement that’s in place between the airlines and the travel agencies. And the travel agencies are free to charge whatever they want.”
Many frustrated travellers who wrote Go Public blame travel agencies for giving more headaches than help.
One said he was “at an absolute loss” when it came to obtaining vouchers. Another wrote that “after four hours, they disconnected my call.” Another said his agency was “refusing to pay back” money that is rightfully his. Yet another claimed his travel agency was holding almost $3,000 “hostage.”
Consumers must be persistent, Gradek said.
“Don’t procrastinate,” he said. “Always follow up with whoever got the last ping-pong — whether it’s the travel agency or the airline. The more you make a pest of yourself with either party, the sooner you get this thing settled.”
Failing that, says Gradek, they can escalate to the provincial or territorial authority that handles travel complaints.
But Ontario’s regulator, TICO, can’t force an agency to reimburse a client.
It’s a “toothless tiger,” says Gradek, and needs more powers to make consumers financially whole.
“They have a nice loud roar … but when it comes to doing something that will put some money behind their actions, they seem very reluctant to want to do that.”
Smart says TICO isn’t “heavy handed,” but accomplishes a lot by facilitating discussion between frustrated customers and travel agencies. When mediation doesn’t work, its officers can lay charges and take cases to court.
“We can’t impose a settlement,” said Smart. “But we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars over the years for consumers who have put complaints in.”
Gill, who filed a complaint with TICO, agrees it should have more power.
“Why are they getting [government] money if they can’t do anything to compensate the consumer?” he asked.
“They should be given power to make them [agencies] pay back the consumer their money so that we don’t have to go through lengthy court trials.”
Despite everything, Gill says he and his family are still keen to travel — the next destination on the list is Western Canada.
“We have a lot of family in the Vancouver area,” said Gill. “That is our dream vacation.”
Gill says he’ll use his newly minted refund to take that trip, but wonders how many other Canadians are still owed vouchers from their travel agents.
“I want to spread awareness about this issue,” he said. “There may be more victims whose [vouchers] have been used by travel agencies without their knowledge.”
Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC’s consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.