WestJet now charges $25 to book a flight by phone. Are airline fees out of control?

Jana Fatovic prefers to buy her WestJet flights over the phone to ensure everything goes smoothly. But a recent attempt to book tickets for a family trip to Arizona didn’t quite pan out.

While waiting on hold to speak with an agent, a recorded message informed her that WestJet now charges $25 to book economy fares by phone.

“I was fuming,” said Fatovic, who lives just outside of Edmonton. “I just feel like it’s a big cash grab.”

Airline fees are nothing new. But some major carriers have raised the ire of customers by introducing charges for features once included, such as overhead space for carry-on baggage and booking flights by phone.

Airlines often argue that charging fees helps keep base fares low and that customers only pay for the added services they want. But many passengers claim they already pay big bucks for flights, so they shouldn’t be inundated with extra fees.

“It’s just pricing people out of being able to fly,” said Fatovic, who avoided WestJet’s phone fee by reluctantly booking her trip online. But she notes that customers uncomfortable using computers might not be able to do that. 

“So now they get nickel and dimed?”

Fatovic reluctantly booked her family trip online, rather than paying WestJet a $25 fee to buy four tickets over the phone. (Samuel Martin/CBC News)

WestJet spokesperson Madison Kruger said in an email that the airline has upgraded its website to ensure customers can easily book and change flights online.

She also said that fees for bookings by phone are “a standard industry practice.”

CBC News could find only one other major Canadian airline that charges for the service: ultra low -cost carrier Flair.

More fees ahead

Air Canada also faced customer criticism when it introduced a new fee in April for seat selection at check-in for economy fares.

Following complaints on social media, Air Canada’s fee disappeared — but not for long.

Airline spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email that the charge was “paused for operational reasons” and will return at a later date.

The fee is common in the industry, he said. WestJet charges it, too, according to its website.

WestJet also got hit with customer backlash when, earlier this month, it introduced new rules and fees for its lowest-fare option — now called UltraBasic.

“I did laugh,” said WestJet passenger Taryn Zielke, when she heard about the fare. “It was almost like a parody.”

For starters, UltraBasic excludes overhead room for a carry-on bag.

Passengers can still bring carry-on luggage — if they pay for a service upgrade starting at $30. They can also check a bag, but it will cost at least $45 on domestic flights — $10 more than the same fee charged for economy fares.

UltraBasic passengers also board last and are seated at the back of the plane (unless they pay for seat selection).

Taryn Zielke and 3-year-old daughter, Iris, sitting in seats on a WestJet plane.
Taryn Zielke of Regina and daughter Iris, 3, on a WestJet flight on Saturday. Zielke says WestJet’s UltraBasic fare seems like the airline is punishing people who choose the cheapest flight. (Submitted by Taryn Zielke)

“[It’s] like they’re trying to punish people for wanting to pay less,” said Zielke of Regina, who typically books the lowest fare. “It’s like [WestJet is saying], ‘Fine, you think you can pay the least amount for a ticket? Well, we’ll show you.'”

WestJet spokesperson Kruger said UltraBasic passengers still get a deal, because the airline has dropped its lowest fare by an average of 12 per cent.

She also said fewer passengers bringing carry-on bags speeds up boarding time.

Porter Airlines also offers a low-cost basic fare where passengers must pay extra for carry-on bags.

Zielke said she would like the federal government to regulate airline fees to ensure they don’t get out of control.

“You probably shouldn’t charge random fees without any sort of oversight,” she said.

What is Ottawa doing?

Consumer advocate Sylvie De Bellefeuille said that legally, airlines can charge whatever fees they want, as long as they’re upfront about it.

“It’s really up to the business to decide — and up to the consumer if they are willing or not to pay those prices,” said De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Montreal-based consumer advocacy group Option Consommateurs.

To help customers, she suggests airlines disclose service charges upfront, along with the ticket price. Typically, carriers list fees on a separate page on their websites.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille sitting by a window.
Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with Montreal advocacy group Option Consommateurs, says airlines should be more transparent about their fees by listing them on the same online page as the ticket price. (CBC)

“If it was all [on] the same page for each air carrier, it would be much easier for consumers to have a full idea of what they’re paying and be able to compare prices,” De Bellefeuille said.

The United States recently mandated that airlines disclose, alongside airfares, added fees for things like baggage and flight changes. But the rule is already being challenged in court by major U.S. airlines. They argue that, in part, the extra information will confuse customers.

The Canadian government also plans to strengthen airline fee transparency “so that any optional fees can be more easily found [online],” said Laurent de Casanove, press secretary for Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

However, the government has no action plan as of yet or a timeline for when one will be implemented. And the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents carriers like WestJet and Air Canada, remains skeptical.

“NACC members are fully transparent to the travelling public about what ancillary fees are charged, and when,” the group’s president and CEO, Jeff Morrison, said in an email, adding that NACC has so far failed to get clarity from Ottawa on its plans.

De Bellefeuille said even if Ottawa introduces new rules to make airline fees more transparent, that won’t reduce or eliminate them.

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She suggested that more competition could help bring down the total cost of flying.

Last month, the federal Competition Bureau announced that it plans to study competition in the domestic airline industry and how it could be improved.

“Domestic airfare in Canada appears to be relatively high,” the bureau said in a statement. It has not yet provided a launch date for the study.

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