If there was one person who could truly be called an icon of the travel industry, it was Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.
TORONTO — When Gary Rams booked his client on a one-way flight to Shanghai with Air Canada, he knew there’d be a chance the flight would be cancelled due to the pandemic. And sure enough, it was.
Prior to this particular booking, the veteran travel agent, who’s associated with Crowfoot Travel Solutions in Calgary, AB, booked several clients on flights to Europe, the United States and Mexico. All flights were booked within two to three weeks prior to departure, and all, subsequently, were cancelled by the airlines due to COVID-19. So Rams and his client, who was flying to China for work, were well aware of the potentially same outcome.
Knowing this, however, still did not lessen the sting of a last-minute cancellation, even with the offer of a future travel voucher.
“My clients were not surprised but were also not very happy in some cases,” says Ram. “A client who booked a one-way flight to China should not have to deal with a voucher.”
Rams is just one of many agents dealing with clients whose flights have been cancelled in recent weeks without much notice. Airlines, of course, have been struggling to fill planes since resuming limited service in the summer, months after COVID-19 led to a full-stop in global travel in March. Just this week, it was reported that Air Canada will be suspending select flights in Atlantic Canada until further notice starting in January, this coming five months after an indefinite suspension of service on 30 domestic regional routes. WestJet is also seeing poor performance in Atlantic Canada and ended up cutting 80% of its capacity in the region in October, while Transat is dealing with its own reduced capacities in the midst of ongoing travel restrictions and quarantine measures.
Across the board, Canada’s airlines are struggling to simply get planes in the air. Without enough passengers onboard – and still no word from the Canadian government on when its previously announced financial assistance will actually be coming – cancelled flights have unfortunately been an unavoidable occurrence for many travellers.
“It is very difficult, clients need to be able to book with some confidence,” says Rams. “I know it’s not easy from the airline or operator view and I know they need a certain number of people on the aircraft. But we should all be able to work together and show each other some respect. We need some flexibility from all sides.”
Travelweek reached out to Canada’s airlines for comment, here’s what Air Canada, WestJet and Transat had to say:
Though unable to confirm exactly how many flights have been cancelled in the past three months, Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick tells Travelweek that airlines adjust their schedules all the time and have always done so for various reasons, many of which are outside their control such as weather, aircraft availability and airport disruptions.
Of course, none of these variables compare in scope to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced Canada’s largest airline to reduce its capacity by as much as 95%.
“We have been attempting to rebuild our network, adding back capacity. However, the ground keeps shifting with new government regulations coming into effect, such as Europe’s recent decision to limit Canadians from travelling, as well as changing quarantine and testing protocols,” says Fitzpatrick. “Plus, much of our traffic is connecting so when one part of the network is disrupted, it can affect other parts and that, too, can lead to schedule changes. All this makes travel uncertain and changeable at the last moment.”
To accommodate impacted guests, Air Canada’s first – and best – option, he adds, is to rebook them on the next available flight. When this isn’t possible or satisfactory, Air Canada has other options in place such as refunds for customers with refundable tickets, and a travel credit or Aeroplan points with a bonus for those holding non-refundable ones.
“We introduced new travel credits that are transferrable and do not expire to give travel agents an additional tool for helping customers. “We’ve also introduced a new refundable Economy fare class so agents can offer more certainty to customers, and we have extended our change policies a few times now to give agents and customers flexibility,” he says.
And for travel agents specifically, Fitzpatrick has this message to share: “Schedule changes and cancellations are not new and our agency partners are very adept at handling these situations. Yet we realize COVID-19 has added more complexity and we are working with the agency community to navigate this uncertain terrain.
“There is no doubt the uncertainty of COVID-19 has greatly complicated all our lives yet we are committed to working through this together with the agency community so we all come out on the other side of COVID-19 stronger.”
Like all airlines, the COVID-19 crisis hit WestJet with devastating force, says spokesperson Lauren Stewart. Since the beginning of March, guest traffic has dropped significantly and the carrier is currently operating at approximately a 75% reduction year-over-year, suspending a majority of its flying due to the pandemic.
“Our schedule takes into account fluctuating demand trends that are being propelled by domestic and international travel restrictions, border closures and quarantine requirements,” says Stewart. “Despite these headwinds, WestJet remains one of North America’s most on-time airlines during this difficult time.”
Stewart reminds agents that WestJet continues to provide flexibility in booking, with change and cancellation policies in place for guests. More details can be found here.
“We understand and appreciate how difficult this unprecedented situation is for all and continue to be grateful for the ongoing support of our agents,” says Stewart.
Joe Adamo, Chief Distribution Officer at Transat and President at Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), tells Travelweek that Air Transat has, indeed, had to adapt to low demand caused by the second wave of COVID-19 as well as ongoing restrictions and entry requirements for Canada and elsewhere. As a result, the carrier has been forced to reduce capacity initially planned for the coming months.
However, he also notes that Air Transat has done its best to avoid cancelling flights at the last minute.
“We have updated our program for the entire winter several weeks in advance, and in order to limit the impact on our customers we have prioritized reprotection of flights whenever possible, even using other airlines if it was impossible to offer seats on other Air Transat flights,” he says, adding that capacity has also been adjusted by changing the size of aircraft on certain routes.
The vast majority of customers whose flights have been cancelled were offered a fully transferable travel credit with no expiry date.
Noting the important intermediary role of travel agents, who he says has shown “incredible adaptability” these last few months, Adamo extends his heartfelt gratitude.
“We profoundly sympathize with all of you during these trying times and the hardships you are facing are not lost on us,” he says. “We remain committed to doing everything we can in order to rebuild our industry and earn the trust of travellers, by enabling them to travel with the utmost peace of mind when they are ready to do so, with unprecedented flexibility options on bookings and rigorous safety protocols.”