Unexpected pregnancy and Zika fears prompt feud with Air Canada

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An Ottawa man is urging families to know the rules when it comes to travelling to Zika-affected countries.

Colin Laycock, 35, said he was frustrated that Air Canada was initially unwilling to review his family’s travel plans after his wife unexpectedly became pregnant.

“We [were] stuck,” Laycock said. “That’s the really disheartening part.”

Air Canada has now reviewed his claim and offered him a partial refund — but only after Laycock shared his story with CBC News on Wednesday.

Last June, Laycock and his wife booked a family getaway to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The couple planned to visit the Caribbean country next month with their two-and-a-half year-old daughter and their extended family.

“At that point, no one was pregnant or expecting to be pregnant,” he said. “And then that changed.”

Laycock said he and his wife were surprised to learn in October they were expecting their second child.

A month later, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a travel health notice, recommending that pregnant women or women who are planning to become pregnant avoid travelling to countries or areas where an outbreak of the virus has been reported. Among the countries on that list were the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Laycock said his family had only one choice. “It’s time to cancel the trip,” he said. “That’s what we decided to do as a whole family.”

Air Canada unwilling to help

While Laycock said the first Air Canada customer service agent he spoke with was empathetic, that did not last once the call was transferred to the airline’s medical desk.

“Air Canada wanted nothing to do with the conversation,” he said.

“They didn’t want to let me talk to a manager, or give a credit for another flight. They’ve left the entire family out in the cold, so to speak, with airline tickets that we’re not going to use.”

Laycock said he was taken aback by Air Canada’s unwillingness to reach a compromise, and frustrated by the discretion airlines have to make these decisions.

“Air Canada is — in my opinion — deciding which countries people can travel to and not, based on a health advisory, when they’re not the health experts at all,” he said. “That’s completely wrong and unacceptable.”

Zika still a threat

According to the World Health Organization, the Turks and Caicos Islands are just one of 65 countries affected at the time of writing by the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

If infected, a pregnant woman can transmit the virus to her fetus, potentially leading to neurological disorders and birth defects, including microencephaly.

As of Dec. 13, the Public Health Agency of Canada said there were 421 travel-related cases of Zika infections in Canada and three cases where the infection was sexually transmitted. Those cases include 20 pregnant women infected with the virus.

Air Canada stands by policy, but will contact couple

In a statement to the CBC, Air Canada said it generally assists customers who are worried about Zika, provided they are travelling to Mexico or Florida.

Air Canada said it makes its decisions based on “recommendations from bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada, which for more than a year has been advising individuals who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant to avoid travel to affected countries.”

In response to the CBC’s report, Air Canada said it would contact Laycock to re-assess his family’s situation.

Laycock later told the CBC that Air Canada had refunded him in full for tickets bought for his immediate family, but — so far — not for other family members who were booked to travel with them.

He said his story should still serve as a warning to other travellers.

“Unfortunately, this is most likely going to happen to a bunch of families. People start families, get pregnant, things happen and trips are booked,” he said. “Be very aware of what your rights are.”

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