“We’re going to fight”: Tour ops, airlines push on through pandemic’s challenges

“We’re going to fight”: Tour ops, airlines push on through pandemic’s challenges

TORONTO — While travel agents have taken the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on the travel industry, the situation hasn’t been much better for suppliers.

Estimates on losses for the global airline industry amid the pandemic are now in the neighbourhood of US$200 billion, and many were just getting the wind under their wings when the variants – delta and then omicron – negatively affected demand.

Here in Canada airlines struck deals for financial assistance packages from the federal government that included loan facilities with millions earmarked for refunds for passengers impacted by COVID-19 cancellations. Crucially for the retail travel industry, and thanks to the months and months of tireless work by ACTA, ACITA and agents across Canada, the packages also included protection for agent commissions.

With Canada’s vaccination rate soaring and low case counts in the summer months, airline jet engines were roaring again with a rapid ramp-up in demand.

The blanket travel advisory lifted in October 2021 and just a few weeks later, on Nov. 19, Air Canada announced its withdrawal from further financial support from the federal government, thanks to its improved liquidity position and ongoing recovery from the pandemic. Air Canada only tapped the funds dedicated to refunding customers’ non-refundable tickets.

And then just like that, the travel advisory was back, announced by the federal government on Dec. 15. So far the Level 3 advisory is in place until at least Jan. 15. And while thankfully it hasn’t stopped some travellers, many others have cancelled or rebooked.

Among the suppliers voicing their vehement opposition to the reinstated travel advisory, WestJet called the new travel advisory and other recent measures a setback in Canada’s progress and its transition away from relying on blanket advisories and policies.

“Air travel is the most tested and protected consumer activity in Canada, every person travelling internationally is tested on average twice throughout their travel journey,” said WestJet President and CEO Harry Taylor.

Taylor essentially said ‘show us the data’, requesting that the federal government publicly share the travel related COVID-19 data that has been used to re-impose the advisory and advice targeted towards fully-vaccinated Canadians and the travel and tourism industry.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have safely flown more than seven million guests and air travel has been commended for its commitment to safety. Fully-vaccinated Canadians should not be singled-out for choosing to take part in a safe activity,” said Taylor.

WHAT TOUR OPERATORS ARE SAYING

Tour operators have taken a hit as well. After months and months of challenges, including the complete lack of flights by Canada’s biggest carriers to sun destinations in the early months of 2021, as per a request from the federal government, bookings were coming in strong – magnifying staffing shortages at call centres – when the advisory came back.

We asked tour operators about rebookings and cancellations in these roller coaster final days of 2021.

Said one niche tour op: “We are trying to be as flexible as possible but there is only so much we can do. We are hurting our business if we don’t bend over backwards and give a credit, and also potentially causing problems for the client if we stand by our terms and conditions. The agents’ clients have insurance but it won’t cover COVID so they look to us to help. We just can’t win. The whole situation is depressing.”

The phones are quiet, but then that’s typical for the holiday season, says Jonathan Sargeant, Sales Manager, Royal Irish Tours. “We are not getting many cancellations but a lot of travel advisors are calling to see what the options are for their clients. We are advising them to hold off cancelling or moving trip dates until the new year. We are hoping we’ll have a clearer idea of spring/ summer travel in the next few weeks,” he said.

The Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO) and its Quebec counterpart, Association des Tours Opérateurs du Québec (ATOQ) have been active throughout the pandemic with advocacy efforts. In June 2021 CATO and ATOQ asked the federal government to extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) until at least Dec. 31, 2021. CEWS wound down in October 2021, replaced by the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program, and the Hardest Hit Business Recovery Program.

At that time CATO Chair Brett Walker noted that while CATO and ATOQ members truly appreciate the federal government’s CEWS program, CATO and ATOQ tour ops were nonetheless forced to lay off nearly 30% of their collective workforce during the pandemic. “With average advanced bookings made six months prior to departure and borders still closed, there will be little, if any, return to international travel before 2022.”

The situation is dire, Walker says now. “We never had a reprieve from either the virus or the heavy hand of government to start the booking process in any meaningful way,” he tells Travelweek. Bookings for 2022 “are looking okay but that’s only because a lot of those booked to travel in Q1 2022 were moved from previous departures. Yes we have new bookings but compared to this time 2019 – we’re down over 90% in revenue earned (representing travellers – which most everyone understands).

More worrisome is that future sales “are taking a heavy wallop,” says Walker, adding, “I don’t care who you are. If you’ve been successful in this industry over the years and your baseline for comparison is decent – you’re way down.”

The mood in the travel industry right now is doggedness, he adds. “We’re going to fight. We will get through this. We are going to fight like hell and have to!! No letting up.”