WestJet, Air Canada face criticism over Yellowknife flights as wildfires rage


As wildfires burn across the Northwest Territories, Canada’s major airlines are facing criticism that not enough is being done to accommodate passengers hoping to flee the region or change their flights.

Earlier this week, Yellowknife declared a state of emergency, and late Wednesday, residents were ordered to evacuate the city as wildfires approached. 

Meanwhile, Air Canada is offering to waive change fees for people scrambling to change flights to Yellowknife that were booked no later than Tuesday for travel for that week. 

But several people have blasted the airline on social media, complaining that it has spiked fares to as high as $4,665 for flights departing the city. 

In an email, Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News that the claims are unfounded. He said the airline has capped fares for direct flights out of Yellowknife, citing as an example a Yellowknife to Edmonton flight for $272. He did not specify the date of the flight. 

Regarding flights posted for more than $1,000 out of Yellowknife, Fitzpatrick wrote that they “are based on complex itineraries involving multiple flights, and sometimes multiple carriers, rather than direct flights out.”

He also said that Air Canada has added two extra flights on Thursday, doubling its regular operations in Yellowknife. 

“We are working with authorities to determine how long we can continue to operate given the limitations being imposed on flying due to the fires,” Fitzpatrick said. He added that due to the evacuation order, Air Canada has cancelled flights out of Yellowknife on Saturday.

Watch / Yellowknife begins evacuation as wildfires approach: 

N.W.T. officials order total evacuation of Yellowknife by noon Friday

The dangerous wildfire bearing down on Yellowknife has prompted officials to order everyone out by noon Friday. While the city is not in immediate danger, Environment Minister Shane Thompson says the ‘phased evacuation’ will allow citizens to get out safely by car or by plane.

WestJet offers apology

WestJet has also faced criticism from passengers who claimed the airline wasn’t accommodating those who wanted to change their flights to Yellowknife.

On Wednesday, Jackie Steenbergen of Lethbridge, Alta., told CBC News that WestJet charged her a $420 change fee to postpone a flight for herself and her husband later this month to Yellowknife to visit their daughter. After posting a public complaint on social media about the charge, she said WestJet dropped the change fee to $210. 

Steenbergen said she felt she shouldn’t be charged any fee for rescheduling a flight to an area plagued by wildfires. 

“I’m a little disheartened, which is why I went to [social media],” she said. “Northwest Territories is on fire…. My daughter is not even there, she’s evacuated.”

WestJet told CBC News that in response to the mandatory evacuation order, it is now waiving change fees for passengers flying to Yellowknife between Aug. 17 and 22. The airline said it has also adjusted fares to avoid “price escalation.”

CBC News has not yet been able to reach Steenbergen to find out if WestJet has refunded her change fee. 

WestJet passenger Andrea Salter of South Woodslee, Ont., said on Wednesday she was told that she would get no refund or credit if she cancelled her flight for herself and three children to Yellowknife — which departed that day. 

Andrea and Eric Salter with two of their children.
Andrea, centre, and Eric Salter, left, with two of their children. Andrea learned on Thursday that WestJet will allow her to cancel her family trip to Yellowknife this week at no charge. (Submitted by Andrea Salter)

Salter said she booked her four WestJet tickets using the online booking service, CheapOair.ca. She said she called the company on Tuesday to try to postpone the flight but was told that because she booked cheap, basic economy fares, her only choices were for her family to take the flight or forfeit the $2,800 she spent on tickets. 

“I’m disappointed and I’m hurt,” Salter said on Wednesday from her home, as she chose not to take the flight to Yellowknife.

“We’ve used [WestJet] for years of travelling, and this is what we get? It’s upsetting,” she said. 

“I feel a bit like they’re dropping us and just saying, ‘Take your family into danger. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,'” said Salter’s husband, Eric.

Following a CBC News inquiry to WestJet and CheapOair, Salter said the airline called her and offered a full refund or credit. She happily accepted a flight credit.  

In an email to CBC News, WestJet spokesperson Madison Kruger apologized for “the lapse in communication” between WestJet and CheapOair. 

“We are pleased that we were able to expedite a resolution,” Kruger said.

She also said that to accommodate more passengers on flights departing Yellowknife for Calgary on Thursday, WestJet has switched to larger aircraft, added an extra flight and increased the pets in cabin limit. 

Kruger added that “out of an abundance of caution,” WestJet has cancelled six flights to or from Yellowknife on Friday and Saturday.

More evacuation flights

Transport Canada told CBC News that many airlines have been contacted to help people escape Yellowknife. 

Canadian North airline says it started operating evacuation flights on Monday and is currently welcoming pets (on a leash) in the cabin. 

“Most people are fleeing,” said Shelly De Caria, Canadian North’s VP of marketing. “We are here to help and we will not leave until everyone is safely out of the city.”

National Defence says the Canadian Armed Forces have deployed four aircraft to help with evacuations. 

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