'Really upsetting': Family pays $15K to get home after WestJet cancels Puerto Rico flights

WestJet cancels family's flight (Chris Ma)

Chris Ma and 13 of her relatives learned their WestJet flight home had been cancelled when they arrived at the San Juan airport. 

Unbeknownst to them, the flight had actually been cancelled nearly a month earlier when WestJet suspended service to Puerto Rico. 

"We were super shocked," says Ma, who lives in Toronto. "It was just really upsetting."

The family had just finished a Caribbean cruise that docked in Puerto Rico's capital on Nov. 4. 

"We were stranded," Ma says. "We were just so worried."

The family scrambled and eventually did find a way home — four days later, and at a huge cost. 

They had to shell out $15,550 total to book last-minute flights on other airlines and stay three extra nights in a San Juan hotel.

"All the money and time that we wasted," Ma says. "It was really unfortunate."

Many Canadians have had their travel plans disrupted because both WestJet and Air Canada have cancelled flights and suspended service to Puerto Rico due to damage caused by Hurricane Maria in September.

Other airlines such as American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue are still flying to the island.

WestJet says it provided "ample notification" about its flight cancellations by posting an advisory on its website on Oct. 8, and sending out notices.

However, several WestJet travellers who spoke with CBC News say they got the news very late, leaving them scrambling to find new flights.

'Can't do anything about it'

Ma and her family had flown to San Juan on American Airlines on Oct. 28 to catch their cruise. They didn't learn about about the cancellation of their return WestJet flight until a week later when they couldn't find a WestJet booth at the airport and Ma called the airline. 

"They just said that they're sorry, it's unfortunate, but they can't do anything about it," she recalls.

Next, Ma called EC Travel, which had booked the family's tickets and assured them before departure that the trip was still a go. She says the Toronto agency was just as shocked as she was, and advised her the fastest way home would be to book with another airline at the airport.

The best the family could get were multiple connecting flights on three different airlines. They also had to stay three nights in a hotel in San Juan before they could start their journey home to Toronto and Montreal.

"I feel like WestJet is to blame," Ma says. "If they're going to cancel flights that we already bought tickets for, they should have been able to help us more."

Who's to blame?

WestJet says it alerted travel agencies about the flight cancellations both on its website specifically for agents and by emailing them notices. The airline also said that while it will refund the cancelled tickets and waive change fees, it's up to the agencies to arrange new flights.

Travel agent Nick Wu with EC Travel says the company never received an email from WestJet. CBC News asked WestJet if it could provide a copy of any notification sent to EC Travel. The airline hasn't responded to the request.

Wu also says an online posting isn't sufficient notice for agencies dealing with high volumes of passengers, especially considering the hurricane threat had already passed and many airlines continue to service San Juan.

"How could we guess that when the hurricane's gone, they start cancelling the flights?" 

He also says the yet-to-be-refunded $2,122 for the family's original 14 WestJet tickets home won't go very far to cover their new $15,550 bill.

"This is the most terrible experience that I've had," Wu says.

He sent a complaint to the airline asking for compensation for the family. "They sell the ticket, they should take responsibility," he says. 

'They just dropped us'

Other travel companies also missed WestJet's alerts. Online booking agencies Flight Network and Kiwi.com informed passengers just two days prior to departure that their Nov. 4 flight from San Juan to Toronto was cancelled.

Both agencies took responsibility for the late notification.

But, like EC Travel, Aspire Travel in Ajax, Ont., believes WestJet blundered by not contacting the agency earlier and helping it make alternative plans for passengers.

"They just dropped us. They just dropped the passengers," says travel agent Andrea Thomas.

She booked three clients on a return WestJet flight from San Juan to Toronto for Nov. 4.

Thomas did get an email notice from the airline about the flight cancellation — on Oct. 18, 10 days before the passengers were set to fly to San Juan to catch their cruise.

"This came as a shock," she says. "It was very, very frustrating."

Thomas eventually did find alternative flights for her three clients and got a refund for the cancelled WestJet flights.

But because it was a late booking that now included a night in a hotel, she says her agency paid about $4,000 out of pocket to guarantee the passengers a flight home.

Thomas wants WestJet to provide compensation.

"It's a breakdown in service," she says. "It had financial repercussions to say the least."

CBC News asked WestJet about compensation.

"We deal directly with the guest/travel agent on these sorts of matters," spokesperson Lauren Stewart said in an email.

She also offered an apology for inconvenienced customers.

Passengers like Chris Ma and her family are hoping for something more.