New WestJet policy means father may not see his daughters for Christmas

Dec 15 2021, 8:01 pm

A sudden change in WestJet’s medical exemption policy has thrown a wrench in one father’s travel plans. And with the holidays less than two weeks away, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to spend Christmas with two of his daughters.

Blake Venechuk lives in Metro Vancouver with his 10-year-old daughter, the oldest of three girls. He also has a six-year-old and a four-year-old who lives with his family in Calgary.

“My 10-year-old and I travel back and forth between Vancouver and Calgary almost every two weeks,” he tells Daily Hive in an interview.

The trips are approximately three to four days long and let the three girls spend time together, while Venechuk grows a relationship with his two daughters.

During these flights, Venechuk has flown with a medical exemption as he’s unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition to allergies to two ingredients in the vaccine, an acute kidney disease he has had since he was a child creates an added layer of complication.

“When I was two or three years old, I was diagnosed with acute glomerulonephritis, which is a kidney disease,” he explains. “I’ve managed this condition my entire life, but when I was young, there was rigorous testing, ultrasound, urine analysis, bloodwork, and watching what I did with my body and what I put in it.”

He continues to monitor his condition closely and, fortunately, has been able to mitigate treatments like dialysis or requiring a kidney transplant.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people worldwide were able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Venechuk says that he noticed reported cases in Europe of people who got glomerulonephritis. He says that both the Ontario and Alberta governments have also released reports that state potential renal failure as a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It started [with people] in the 60s, then it started coming down into the demographic of people in their 50s and then in their 40s, and obviously this is more concerning for me,” he says. “Everybody is in a different boat, but I know for me, it’s concerning that some of these vaccines are triggering the same disease that I already have.”

The advice he receives from doctors has also been inconclusive due to some of the side effects that could occur for him, like dialysis or renal failure.

“They always say ‘you need to make an informed decision yourself because if anything were to happen to you, you’re the one who’s going to live with that,” he says.

WestJet’s sudden change in policy

Venechuk’s trips between Vancouver and Calgary have taken place for over a year and a half, after months of not being able to see his other two daughters due to regional travel restrictions.

“I wasn’t even allowed to see my then five and three-year-old daughters because I wasn’t able to travel outside of my health region,” he explains. “The only opportunity for us to get any contact was over Zoom calls. And any parent will understand that if you have a five and a three-year-old, that’s not even anything close to actual contact.”

The 38-year-old has been able to fly with WestJet with a medical exemption from his doctor. But when Canada’s requirement for full vaccination for travel came into effect, he took extra precautions to ensure that his exemption and current documentation would allow him to continue flying.

Throughout the month of November, he says that he had five calls with different WestJet agents in preparation for a flight on December 3. Each call was over an hour in length, and he was reassured each time that he could fly with a medical exemption letter and a negative PCR test within 72 hours of travelling.

The last call with an agent occurred on November 29, just days before he and his daughter were meant to fly out.

“Like every other Friday, I pick my daughter up from school at 12:30 pm, and we make our way to the airport out in Vancouver, from Langley,” Venechuk says.

During the check-in process, however, the agent who helped Venechuk and his daughter was told that the policy changed on December 1 and that he would need a different medical exemption, specifically from WestJet. The agent only learned about this, however, after printing out boarding passes and asking a colleague about whether to make an additional note in Venechuk’s account.

The new policy would require Venechuk’s exemption to be approved specifically by WestJet medical staff — a process that could take two to three weeks. And in the meantime, he and his daughter wouldn’t be allowed to fly.

“At that point in time, the gentleman I was dealing with, you could tell that he was notably upset because of how this was going,” Venechuk says. “And me being confused but now knowing what’s going on, because we thought that we could still fly.”

He tried to explain to his check-in agent that he spent hours on the phone with other WestJet employees, with hopes of avoiding this exact situation.

“We’ve done an extensive amount of due diligence to prevent this from happening,” he recalls. “I was assured every step along the way that the only thing I needed to provide was my medical exemption letter and that I needed to have a negative PCR test that was within the last 48 to 72 hours of my travels.”

When Venechuk and his 10-year-old daughter left the airport, he was then forced to call his two youngest girls in Calgary to share the bad news.

“When I walk out, I have to call my young daughters because they’re expecting to be able to see us in a couple of hours,” he says. “They’re excited, jumping around, we always video call them when we’re at the gate, and that’s what they thought it was.”

“And again, they’re too young to kind of really understand or expect something different. When I told them that we wouldn’t be able to come, my four-year-old, I don’t think she really understood what was happening. But my six-year-old broke down crying and ran away from the phone and said she didn’t want to talk. And when she came back, she was bawling because she didn’t understand.”

Fast-tracking forms in time for Christmas

After the missed flight on December 3, Venechuk resumed calls with various WestJet agents. He says that during a call two days later, he spoke to an agent and asked when the new policy took place and when details around it were released. He was reportedly told that the new medical exemption policy didn’t go live on the WestJet website until November 30 and that it was only released to employees internally on November 26.

“[The agent] read the email out to me that WestJet sent its staff, saying that on November 30, they’re going to release this form that’s effective on December 1,” Venechuk says.

“Having 24 hours notice and never being told that this is something that I need to do and being told that I should have gone on the website after doing all the due diligence that I did, just adds insult to injury.”

The form also needs to be filled out and submitted by a medical professional, meaning that if Venechuk wants to see his children in Calgary for Christmas, he’ll have to secure the necessary appointments and hope that a new medical exemption is provided by WestJet.

“I’m also supposed to be flying to Calgary to pick up my kids at Christmas time to bring them out here, and if these forms don’t get approved fast enough, I can’t see my kids at Christmas time,” Venechuk says.

He adds that while he’s working to submit forms and receive approval as quickly as possible, he only sees the situation getting worse. Not only that, but he remains frustrated by the lack of transparency that came from WestJet.

“If these forms need to start getting sent in on December 1, I’m probably not the only one sending in these forms… so the writing’s on the wall,” he says. “If they had just given an appropriate amount of time, saying it takes two or three weeks to do these forms, they should have probably released these forms at the beginning of November to allow the people the opportunity.”

On top of juggling medical appointments and continued calls with WestJet agents, Venechuk adds that he’s still trying to explain the situation to his six-year-old daughter in Calgary.

“Every day since when I try to talk to her, she just doesn’t understand,” he says. “She asks me every day when I’m coming next and why I can’t come or why COVID-19 vaccines have anything to do with her dad coming to see her.”

“I’m sure that anybody can understand how hard it is to fly or drive to Calgary every couple of weeks to be able to see your children, especially when it’s only for a couple of days. But then to compound these complications on top of that and to try to coach your young children through situations like that when they just understand the emotional side of not being able to see a parent, it’s extremely difficult.”

The worst part, he says, is that he feels like he did his best to be proactive to avoid a situation like this from happening in the first place. He also noted that despite ongoing conversations with agents, he has yet to hear anything from WestJet as a company.

When asked for comment, WestJet stressed that this wasn’t a company policy, rather part of the federal mandate that came into effect on November 30.

“While there are allowances for medical and religious exemptions that meet the Government’s prescribed criteria, these requests are required to be submitted a minimum of two weeks in advance of travel to request a medical exemption, and three weeks in advance of travel to request a religious exemption,” a WestJet spokesperson confirmed with Daily Hive.

“I can’t even begin to explain how frustrating it is just being sandbagged with something where, to me, it’s so important,” Venechuk says. “I’m not going Christmas shopping; I’m not trying to go on a beach in Cabo. I’m just trying to see my children.”

Vincent PlanaVincent Plana

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