When Expedia told Ian McGrath that flights returning March 13 from Ghana to Senegal were canceled – two days before takeoff – Canadian immigration officers rushed to make alternative travel plans.
But the real problem began when he discovered that the flight was not actually canceled. What made matters worse, both online travel agent McGrath, Expedia, or its operator, Ethiopian Airlines, did not automatically return the $ 1,047 he spent – for flights he had never used.
McGrath spent almost four months trying to get his money back from Expedia. A week after CBC News contacted the company on July 2, he was finally replaced.
"That I have to work hard to get a refund is extraordinary," said McGrath, who flew to Ghana to interview refugee prosecutors who wanted to come to Canada.
"I feel that if I don't go to the media … I will never see the end of this."
When passengers have a dispute with their airline, the rules are quite clear. Canada's new federal air passenger protection regulation sets standards for care for airlines, and dissatisfied passengers can file complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency.
But when customers have complaints with their travel agents, the route to resolution becomes more complicated. That's because travel agents are under provincial jurisdiction, so regulations – and customer options – vary by province.
"It seems that what we have in this country, this is patchy," said Heather Craig-Peddie, vice president of member relations with the Canadian Travel Agents Association. "This is very confusing for consumers."
& # 39; Endless for this & # 39;
After months of trying to collect his returns, McGrath decided to contact the media was his best choice.
He first realized something was wrong after arriving at the airport in Accra, Ghana, to take his rebooked flight – which cost an additional $ 989. When McGrath checked the departure board, he found that the original flight – which Expedia had been told was canceled – was actually new just departed.
"Smoke comes out of my ears," he said. "I'm really upset."
According to an online correspondence with Expedia, on March 15, McGrath began asking about returning $ 1,047 for flights.
Expedia replied that the "special department" was handling this case. McGrath continues to disrupt online and telephone agencies for the next three months, and even threatens legal action.
Meanwhile, Expedia repeatedly told him that Ethiopian Airlines had to cough up refunds and was still looking for trouble.
McGrath also sent Ethiopian Airlines emails several times and received no reply.
"I just feel a little like banging my head against the wall," he said. "There is no end to this."
Who is to blame?
After CBC News reached, Expedia told McGrath that he was getting a full refund.
Regarding who is to blame, the agency said that, according to his records, Ethiopian Airlines had canceled McGrath's return flight because he was mistakenly marked as "not appearing" for his first flight to Ghana – even though he had boarded a plane.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian Airlines told CBC News that they did not cancel any flights. It was suggested that Expedia had triggered a cancellation by misreading the airline code, so it appeared that McGrath was booked at KIWI International Air Lines which was now not functioning.
Expedia's cancellation notice for McGrath did not correctly indicate he was booked with KIWI International for part of his flight.
"The erroneous information seems to have come from Expedia," Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Hailu Woldekidan said in an e-mail. "We respectfully advise … our customers to resolve issues with anyone who releases a false cancellation notice."
Despite the Ethiopian response, Expedia denied responsibility.
"We will continue to work with the airline to ensure our travelers have the best experience possible, and as part of that commitment we process refunds," Expedia spokesman Mary Zajac said in an email.
Who can I turn to?
Besides media, where can tourists switch when they have complaints with their travel agents?
Because McGrath booked his trip using Expedia.ca – based in Ontario – he could file a complaint with the Ontario Travel Industry Council (TICO), which manages the Ontario Travel Industry Act.
"We will see it and go, & # 39; OK, is there a violation of the Act, is there something happening here and is there a way we can find a resolution? & # 39;" Said Dorian Werda, vice president of TICO operations.
At present, only Ontario, B.C. and Quebec has established regulations governing travel retailers and provincial regulators that consumers can complain about if they have unresolved disputes.
Customers who deal with travel agents in Canada can switch to other consumer complaints bodies such as the Better Business Bureau. They can also complain to the Canadian Travel Agents Association – but only if their agency has chosen to become a member – which is voluntary.
Werda said Canadian people would be better served if there was a national protection scheme for all travel industry customers.
"We would love to see something in Canada. That would be awesome."
But even national regulations will not protect customers who use travel agents that are not registered in Canada. In those cases, consumers do not have domestic assistance.
So when ordering online where the agent's location is less clear, Werda recommends that consumers check before they click and buy.
"Look at the URL, see where you are, who you ordered? Who are you giving your money to?"