Here’s what agents are saying about WestJet’s cuts – and will there be refunds?
Friday, October 16, 2020
TORONTO — WestJet isn’t the first airline to pull its flights from a once-robust market amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it likely won’t be the last.
After WestJet announced that it was cutting 80% of its capacity in Atlantic Canada effective Nov. 2, local travel agents we spoke to said they were sympathetic to WestJet’s plight, noting that the airline’s cuts came on the heels of Air Canada’s route suspensions, announced in June 2020 and primarily in Atlantic Canada, and Transat’s July 2020 decision to cancel its USA and South program out of Western Canada.
Many agents say they are hoping these latest cuts will get the attention of the federal government, as the industry continues to lose jobs and millions of dollars, and entire regions lose airline service on major carriers.
Others wondered, will WestJet offer refunds instead of FTCs for the cancelled routes, since service has been suspended indefinitely with no restart date in sight?
THE REFUNDS QUESTION
The federal government is in the midst of the ultimate balancing act, protecting the country’s economy and health amid an unprecedented pandemic, and there are no easy answers.
But there is an answer to the refunds question. At this point, WestJet says it will not be offering refunds on the cancelled Atlantic Canada flights.
“We appreciate there are Atlantic Canadians who are voicing their desire for refunds in light of this announcement,” WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart told Travelweek.
“We fully anticipate returning to the region when the situation improves and will extend the travel credit expiry date beyond the current 24-month window should it be required,” she said.
Stewart added that the Canadian Transportation Agency has determined that refunds to travel credits is acceptable in light of the situation brought about by COVID-19.
WestJet announced its cuts to the Atlantic Canada region earlier this week. Service to and from Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney and Charlottetown will be suspended indefinitely. Quebec City flights will also be discontinued.
Service to and from Halifax and St. John’s will be reduced, to 2x daily service between Halifax and Toronto, 9x weekly service between Halifax and Calgary, and 11x weekly service between Halifax and St. John’s. All changes take effect Nov. 2.
Until now WestJet was the only Canadian airline that serviced 100% of its pre-COVID domestic network.
“We understand this news will be devastating to the communities, our airport partners and the WestJetters who rely on our service,” said Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO. “While we remain committed to the Atlantic region, it’s impossible to say when there will be a return to service without support for a coordinated domestic approach. Our intent is to return as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so.”
Since July 3 Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI and New Brunswick have maintained an ‘Atlantic bubble’ in an effort to keep COVID-19 transmission and caseloads to a minimum. Air travel to and from Canada has also been severely impacted by the federal government’s 14-day quarantine requirement and its advisory against all non-essential travel, now into its eighth month.
With the Atlantic bubble in place, “no one is travelling to and from Atlantic Canada. As a result both WestJet and Air Canada have reduced their capacity. Unfortunately a negative economic impact of keeping Atlantic Canadians safe,” says Gary Gaudry, President, Maritime Travel.
While the route suspensions are disappointing, Gaudry adds, his first concern upon hearing the news about WestJet’s cuts was for Maritime Travel’s clients. “When Air Canada ceased serving a market they had refunded the customers who had credit as the customers had no way to use their credit. Hopefully WestJet will see fit to do the same.”
Gaudry notes that the federal government did announce recently that it plans to support regional airline routes, so as not to isolate cities.
He adds: “We are hoping that when the government provides the necessary support, the airlines will return to the markets they have exited.”
While the Canadian government stepped up with a long list of financial aid programs like CEWS and CERB, providing strong economic support for Canadians in these extremely challenging times, it has so far not provided industry-specific assistance for airlines.
WestJet’s Sims said that while WestJet worked to keep essential air service to all of its domestic airports, demand for travel is being severely limited by restrictive policies and third-party fee increases “that have left us out of runway without sector-specific support.”
Joel Ostrov, President, Canada East Region – Direct Travel, says his reaction to WestJet’s decision echoes his reaction to other cuts made by airlines around the world, including here in Canada, in the wake of COVID-19. “Air Canada made similar cuts to their regional network serving smaller communities in Canada,” says Ostrov. “These cuts are made for the most part because of the Canadian government’s refusal to give assistance to the airline industry in this country. If you contrast this to other countries, almost all of them have given billions of dollars to assist the airline industry to get through the COVID-19 crisis, but Prime Minister Trudeau has refused to offer direct assistance to Canada’s airlines.”
Ostrov said that WestJet’s decision, “although painful to those communities affected, is totally understandable given the current situation, and probably totally necessary to their survival.”
He called on the travel industry to lobby the federal government to provide aid to Canadian airlines to help them survive the pandemic.
ON THE FRONT LINES
In Charlottetown, PEI, The Travel Store owner Paulette Soloman says WestJet’s service suspension was a complete surprise.
“We had no idea this announcement was coming, it was quite out of the blue for us. It’s really unfortunate to see reduced lift coming out of Atlantic Canada,” she said.
WestJet was a welcome addition to the options available to her agency’s clients, says Soloman. “Not only were they offering excellent service within Canada but their expansion into international destinations has been great for travellers as well.”
Like Ostrov, Soloman says these latest route cuts are a clear indication that help is needed from government – not just for airlines but for the entire travel and tourism industry. “When big players like WestJet are cutting service it should not go unnoticed, and I hope very much that attention is given to the effect not just on this airline but also to the trickle-down effect on other industry players such as travel agencies and our advisors, and of course most importantly to travellers,” she said.
Travel Time TPI’s Lois Barbour, in St. John’s, NL, says the focus should be on rapid testing as a means to get air travel back in true recovery mode.
“We have still not moved any closer to a plan to implement that would allow us to travel safely, with quick tests administered on departure and arrival to ensure that travellers with COVID-19 are not moving about undetected,” says Barbour. “That seems like it should be the issue that deserves momentum around it which would then allow us to open up to travel gradually and safely.”
Barbour adds: “The airlines are essential to our economic futures and our travellers deserve more efforts towards the implementation of a plan. It’s a sad day for the industry when after these many months we still cannot have hope of a return to normal operations.”
In Dartmouth, NS, Niche Travel Group owner Faith Sproule says the drop in capacity from Atlantic Canada will hurt WestJet Vacations sales as well. “We only had one direct flight to Halifax to Cancun, but often used WestJet Vacations for Saint Lucia, Antigua, Barbados, etc. I hope they keep two or three flights a day to Toronto so we can still send clients away. One more issue for us to deal with now.”
And it’s not just WestJet. Says Sproule: “Transat cancelled their direct Halifax to Jamaica (our top seller), but right now they still have Cancun, Punta Cana and various parts of Cuba. We have over 150 passengers rebooked for 2021 destination wedding groups to Jamaica and had to go through the full cancellation process again for the second time with them. Total nightmare!”
TTAND travel specialist Scott Penney is also based in Dartmouth, NS. He worries about more cuts in the coming months, as the industry heads into winter with no end in sight to the travel restrictions and the pandemic. The industry has rallied like never before in the face of COVID-19. But the concern is real.
“No doubt our Atlantic bubble has had a major impact on WestJet’s decision which is totally understandable,” says Penney. “From a pure economic standpoint, they cannot continue to have planes come into and out of Atlantic Canada that are mostly empty.”
Penney says he’s worried about the lasting impact on lift in and out of the region. “Being such a small part of Canada, I worry that the cutbacks by WestJet may be around for a long time and may have a lasting impact especially on our smaller towns and cities.”
But moving on from the pandemic is the light at the end of the tunnel for this industry, one that has overcome so much especially in the past two decades. Says Penney: “I look forward to when COVID will be just a memory as we look forward to rebuilding our industry … and seeing WestJet and the other airlines start to increase their lift out of Atlantic Canada again.”
Editor at Travelweek
Kathryn is Editor at Travelweek and has worked for the company since 1995. She has travelled to more than 50 countries and counts Hong Kong, Jerusalem, the Swiss Alps and the Galapagos Islands among her favourite destinations.
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