“A month’s worth of work in 3 days”: Saskatoon-based travel agency owner still reeling from Sunwing cancellations

“A month’s worth of work in 3 days”: Saskatoon-based travel agency owner still reeling from Sunwing cancellations

TORONTO — Still reeling from Sunwing’s unexpected cancellations out of Regina and Saskatoon, and overwhelmed by frantic phone calls and emails from impacted clients, travel advisors are also facing lost commissions at a time when many travel agencies are still struggling to get back on sure footing.

“Every penny of our commission recalled. It is abhorrent,” Jamie Milton, co-owner, Uniglobe Carefree Travel, tells Travelweek. Milton’s agency is based in Saskatoon and was hit hard by Sunwing’s decision.

Winter weather delays and cancellations across much of Canada over the holiday break, by just about every airline, were just the tip of the iceberg, says Milton. “Out of Saskatchewan, we were severely impacted by delays and cancellations over the Christmas week, which were mainly due to weather, which caused extensive impact to all airlines.  We spent much of our Christmas break in the office, assisting clients and trying to bring displaced passengers home,” she says.

She adds: “During this time, some flights were cancelled and it was indicated these cancellations were to help Sunwing get back on schedule and carry out their future flights.”

But as agents now know, there was more to come.

On Dec. 30 Sunwing announced it was cancelling operations from both Saskatoon and Regina, through Feb. 3. Sunwing said it had initially planned to supplement seasonal demand for travel from the two Saskatchewan gateways with the assistance of temporary foreign pilots for the winter months. “When foreign pilot deployment was not agreed to, we brought in subservices to sustain our operations, however the conditions and schedule have proven too significant for our subserviced aircraft partners,” said Sunwing in a statement. The company also attempted to reposition its aircraft over the holiday break, to ease the situation, but was unable to do so as a result of flight delays and cancellations due to weather disruptions and heavy demand.

“We recognize that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to deliver on our customers’ expectations, and we deeply apologize for not meeting the standards of service our Saskatoon and Regina customers rightfully expect,” said Sunwing.

Both the provincial and federal government have taken Sunwing to task in the wake of the cancellations. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called Sunwing’s decision irresponsible. Meanwhile the chair of the House of Commons transport committee is calling for Sunwing – and VIA Rail, which had its own operational issues over the holidays – to publicly explain the travel chaos.

Earlier today Sunwing Travel Group CEO Stephen Hunter and Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado issued a statement that included an apology to travellers.

WHAT ABOUT TRAVEL ADVISORS?

The last of Sunwing’s in-destination passengers from its Saskatchewan gateways arrived home earlier this week. “All scheduled recovery flights are complete, and any remaining passengers in destination are those who are rescheduling previously missed return flights, or enjoying longer vacations of a two to three-week duration and are scheduled to return at a later date based on their originally scheduled departure date,” says Sunwing.

Impacted passengers can submit a claim for compensation or a refund at www.sunwing.ca/en/sunwing-airlines/delay-claim/ for assessment. Receipts for related expenses can be sent to Sunwing Cares at www.sunwing.ca/en/sunwing-cares for review.

But what about travel advisors?

Milton shares her experience from the past week, during what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday break and turned out to be anything but, for her, her agency and so many other travel agencies impacted by the cancellations.

“On December 30 we received a call only a few minutes before the new hit the public that Sunwing was cancelling ALL flights up to and including February 3. To say this was a shock is an understatement. We anticipated that the first week or so of January may be impacted as they completed rescue flights and sorted out their schedule, but the full cancellation of over a month of our program has been extremely impactful.

“Our advisors have worked through all through the New Year break advising clients of their cancelled flights, working on their refunds, quoting them new options and making new bookings. They have essentially done a month’s worth of work in three days.

“The very worst part of this situation is that Sunwing has received our service – we have booked the clients on their behalf, we have managed those bookings, payments, documents and now we have had to break the bad news to clients, manage the cancellations and refunds – and Sunwing expects us all to do this free of charge. All those man hours that we have saved them, they place on the back of travel advisors for absolutely no compensation. Every penny of our commission recalled. It is abhorrent.”

And there’s more. Says Milton: “The other issue, which is completely unacceptable, from our standpoint, is the fact that clients wishing to have their booking moved to another gateway – Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, are not being protected at the rates they paid from Saskatoon.  The clients are willing to pay their own money to drive to these other gateways and pay for overnight hotels, but these clients are also expected to pay Sunwing hundreds of dollars more for this disruption that is entirely of Sunwing’s making.”

Destination wedding clients have been hit especially hard, says Milton. “Wedding groups are being cancelled and having to pay hundreds of dollars more to move dates or destinations – booking promotions offered in their original contracts from a year ago are no longer being offered. These poor brides and grooms must either cancel the wedding they have waited on for (in many cases) years, or ask their guests to drive for several hours and pay a lot more money. There is no option for them and our heart just goes out to all those affected.”

She adds: “Sunwing is facing a difficult situation, but they are making it very, very difficult to regain any support from the clients and agents who book with them. They are burning bridges at every turn and I hope they understand the long-term consequences of their actions and begin treating their clients and the travel industry with the compassion and respect that they deserve.”