"It was very important for us to do right by the travel trade”: Air Canada’s Guillemette and Pierce
Air Canada’s Chief Commercial Officer, Lucie Guillemette (left) and VP, Canada & USA Sales, Lisa Pierce (right)

“It was very important for us to do right by the travel trade”: Air Canada’s Guillemette and Pierce

MONTREAL — Through all the ups and downs over the past two years, Air Canada’s travel advisor partners have been top of mind for the airline, say Air Canada’s Chief Commercial Officer Lucie Guillemette and VP, Canada & USA Sales, Lisa Pierce, in an exclusive interview with Travelweek.

It’s maybe a little easier to treat partners well when times are good. It’s another when times get tough to remember who’s always had your back, and to get through the challenges together, no matter what.

“We were very much in growth mode” leading up to early 2020, says Guillemette. “But then this thing hit, and when the chips are down, and you’re facing a crisis like our industry faced, it was very important for us to do right by the travel trade community.”

Travelweek’s interview with Guillemette and Pierce touched on everything from Air Canada’s recovery, to call centre hold times, to the ongoing airport delays at Pearson and other gateways.

In yesterday’s interview, Guillemette outlined Air Canada’s recovery on its domestic, transborder and international routes, plus the re-launch of Aeroplan, and the return of corporate travel.

In this second and final instalment, Guillemette and Pierce answer questions about wait times – both on the phone, and at the airport – and about the importance of travel agents.

“WE’RE ADDRESSING THE ISSUE”

Air Canada is tackling the long hold times on two fronts – at the call centres, with more hires, and on the tech side, with enhanced self-serve tools for consumers and agents.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve been quite busy on a significant recruitment program,” says Guillemette. “We’re addressing the issue. We’re bringing in more people. At the same time, we’ve made a lot of progress on the technology side, to help our customers and also to support travel agencies. And that’s not just with Air Canada. The team at ACV also had a pretty significant list of improvements that were put into the market.”

Over the past few months ACV has added more self-service options for agents looking to access reservations made online and in the call centre for bookings in Mexico, the Caribbean, Las Vegas, Hawaii, California and Orlando. ACV’s extra self-serve tools, as well as those launched in late 2021, can be accessed through ACV’s website and all external distribution channels, including Sirev, Galileo Vacations, and Sabre Vacations. Clients can also access their reservations directly online and modify certain elements of their booking via the Manage Your Booking page on aircanadavacations.com.

Guillemette, who is also President of ACV, says both companies are “extremely focused” on fixing the situation. “We realize that it’s difficult for the trade to reach us. We’re doing what is required to get us to the standards that our customers deserve.”

There are still improvements to be made, but the situation has improved dramatically, adds Pierce.

One big innovation to help free up the phone lines was Air Canada’s Travel Ready hub, launched during the pandemic with information about entry requirements, change and cancellation policies and more, all customized to each user’s travel plans.

Says Pierce: “We took a look at the types of calls we were getting. And obviously a lot of them were related to questions about travel restrictions and what travellers needed to do. And one of the biggest investments we made was in our Travel Ready hub, so that anyone, consumer or agency, can go on the website and get the information they need. Because it changes by the minute. That relieved a lot of volume to the call centres.”

Pierce adds that passengers also get an email a few days before departure, with a unique message, depending on their flight plans, about what they need to do to get travel-ready. “I think giving that information and helping agencies communicate that to the consumer has been very helpful.”

“ALWAYS TOP OF MIND”

Throughout the pandemic travel agents were key for Air Canada. Guillemette says it was Pierce who made sure the company kept a relentless focus on the trade, even when the pandemic roller coaster was at its worst.

There’s been no shortage of twists and turns over the past two years, from those first confusing, chaotic months of the pandemic in spring 2020, to the April 2021 announcement from Air Canada and the federal government about refunds and commission protection (after months and months of advocacy work led by ACTA and ACITA), to frustrating flight cancellations in the start-and-stop pattern of recovery.

Says Guillemette: “The travel agency community was always a top-of-mind focus. And I credit Lisa for that. Because when something is always on your mind, it’s easy to make the right decisions.”

She adds: “Now when we bring in a new enhancement, new self-service functionality, we don’t feel shy about telling our trade partners, to say, yes, we’ve introduced this, isn’t not because we don’t want to talk to you, it’s because we want you to be as efficient as you can, so you can generate as much revenue as you can.”

As much as ACV has done to maximize the efficiency of the bookings process, there’s more to come.

“At Air Canada Vacations there’s two major technology programs that we’re working on,” says Guillemette. “There’s some pretty big foundational programs that need to change in order for us to be able to improve. And that will be done before year-end. Travel agents have been quite vocal about how we can improve, and we’ve listened.”

AIRPORT FRUSTRATIONS

As travel ramps up, so too do the numbers of passengers making their way through Canada’s airports.

The situation is particularly bad at Toronto Pearson, where reports of hours-long lineups, missed flights and tarmac waits have frustrated the travel industry and infuriated travellers.

Earlier this week the federal government announced the suspension of vaccine mandates for domestic travel and outbound international travel, plus lifted vaccination requirements for federally regulated workers, allowing airline and airport employees on unpaid leave to go back on the job. Understaffing has been a key pain point for the airports. Random testing for arrivals has also been suspended through June 30. The government has also outlined its latest measures aimed at reducing delays, both inbound and outbound.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says he’s seeing improvements in the latest delay data. “But I know we need to do more,” he added.

Air Canada, along with other top industry players, is part of the Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable, which has been advocating for travel’s safe return since the early months of the pandemic.

Guillemette says she understands that airport service providers are recruiting and working hard to staff up. “But we can’t forget either that we’ve been planning our recovery for quite some time. We’re getting ready to be able to deliver on a good summer.”

All stakeholders need to be focused on the common goal of easing airport bottlenecks, say Guillemette and Pierce.

While inbound travel isn’t on the radar for Canada’s outbound travel industry, the need to welcome visitors is top of mind for the federal government, especially after the past two years. “Summer is a key period for Canada itself in terms of tourism. So all the stakeholders are putting a lot of energy into welcoming people into Canada. So everybody’s invested in ensuring that it works,” says Guillemette.

Adds Pierce: “We all have a vested interest in making it work, and there isn’t going to be any one entity that’s going to be able to do it themselves.”