“It’s been a tough year for all of us, but we’re extremely pleased that we can now move forward with this refund file. We are absolutely geared up and ready to go,” said Lucie Guillemette, executive vice-president and CCO at Air Canada.
Refunds, commissions and restrictions took centre stage on Tuesday (April 13) as Ms. Guillemette, alongside Lisa Pierce, vice-president Canada & USA sales at Air Canada and Nino Montagnese, vice-president at Air Canada Vacations (ACV), held a virtual town hall to thank trade partners, take questions and dive deep into Air Canada’s recently-announced $5.9B aid agreement Ottawa.
The multibillion-dollar relief deal, unveiled Monday night (April 12), takes the shape of federal loans that Air Canada must repay, as well as a $500 million-dollar equity investment that gives Ottawa a stake in the company.
“Sector support was obviously a very important file for all of us,” Ms. Guillemette said, “but equally important are all of the efforts we are making to work with industry and government to make sure we can safely reopen the travel and tourism industry.”
Key to travel agents is that Air Canada (and ACV), starting Tuesday (April 13), began the process of refunding customers for cancelled travel during the COVID-19 pandemic – a tense and lengthy subject that has boiled over for 12 months – and that trade commissions will not be recalled.
Travel advisors will retain commission on tickets issued from Feb. 1, 2020. Any tickets issued from April 13, 2021, and onwards will be subject to Air Canada's normal recall policy.
“Although the process was lengthy, please trust that every decision we made, we tried to the best of our ability to consider all the implications of our industry partners, whether it’s in respect to refunds or future policies,” said Ms. Guillemette, who was named President of Air Canada Vacations – a position she will hold in addition to her current role – that same day.
Customers can now request a refund at www.aircanada.com/refund until June 12 and Ms. Guillemette expects Air Canada will process in access of 2 million PNRs.
“We’re absolutely committed to doing these as quickly as we can,” she said, “but we do realize there will be PNRs more complex than others that will require more intervention.”
The scope of Air Canada’s refund policy is comprehensive, covering used and partially-used tickets, vouchers, aeroplane points e-coupons and groups, to name a few.
The airline will be refunding customers “slightly beyond” what was announced in the federal agreement on Monday – “This was by choice,” Ms. Guillemette said.
For bookings made between Feb 1, 2020 and April 13, 2021, Air Canada will refund customers who select a refund whether the cancellation was made by Air Canada or by the customer.
There’s also a “subset of cancellations” made by customers who voluntarily chose to cancel after March 22, 2020, said Ms. Guillemette.
“We recognized how difficult, confusing and stressful the period was for our customers, so therefore, we elected to process those refunds as well,” she said.
Commissions linked to these particular bookings, too, will also be protected, Ms. Guillemette noted.
However: commissions that has already been recalled will not be paid back as that aspect is not part of Air Canada's new policy.
A revised booking policy
Customers can receive a refund, an Air Canada Travel Voucher or the equivalent value in Aeroplan Points with a 65% bonus, on any fare, and these options are now available if a flight is cancelled or rescheduled by more than three hours as part of an updated booking policy.
“We do recognize the tremendous work effort this is going to require with very little notice to prepare, and I can assure you that the entire sales team is mobilized and ready to support you,” Lisa Pierce told agents.
Customers who have already accepted an ACTV or Aeroplan points have the option to exchange these for a refund to the original form of payment, including for the unused portion of any ACTV issued or in cases where a partial refund was provided.
Pierce stressed the importance of customers applying for their refund within the 60-day period outlined. “We want to get this all behind us,” she said.
As smooth as possible
Refunds will also be matched by ACV and that includes group bookings. For cruises, the air is refundable, but the cruise aspect is controlled by the cruise line.
“It really has always been our top priority to make sure our trade partners have all the tools they need,” said Nino Montagnese. “Here we are now, with refunds being processed, and I want to assure you that we will have them run as smoothly as possible.”
Agents will receive an email from ACV advising on how and where they can request a refund for their clients, he said.
“As we start to see our world heal, I believe we will come out of this better and stronger. But we need to do it together,” Mr. Montagnese said. “Travel is going to come back and it really is a direct result of all the efforts and passion that we have put into the industry.”
Preparing for a “V-shaped” recovery
While Canada’s recovery is happening at a slower rate compared to other countries, Ms. Guillemette was still optimistic about the future, encouraged by progress seen elsewhere around the globe and the roll out of vaccines.
Ottawa’s support, for one, will enable Air Canada to restart previously-closed domestic stations.
“This, for us, marks an inflection point in terms of our recovery,” said Ms. Guillemette. “I cannot stress enough how anxious we are to welcome customers back on board our airplanes.”
How will Ottawa’s equity stake in Air Canada make things different?
“I really wouldn’t,” Ms. Guillemette said. “This is not a stake in terms of providing management influence.”
While strict travel and testing rules still stand, Ms. Guillemette said she anticipates an update from the government “in the next week” announcing if, for instance, the mandatory hotel quarantine program will be extended until May or June.
“It’s unknown at this point in time,” she said, offering an assumption that hotel quarantining won’t be around for the long-term.
Air Canada, from the outset of the pandemic, has had to act on assumptions, and if regional markets can resume June 1, then the assumption is that travel within Canada should be easier by June or July, Ms. Guillemette explained.
“Do we have confirmation of that? No…but those are the assumptions we are making as we move forward,” she said.
In regards to international travel, vaccine protocols or testing on arrival will “most likely” be in order, she said, predicting that the end of summer may mark a return in demand.
“When vaccination levels rise or when travel restrictions are lifted, I can assure you that when we say pent-up demand, I think we mean it,” she said, referencing the positive demand curves that have unfolded in other countries.
“We thought we would face a U-shaped recovery, but I actually think, based on what we’ve observed in other geographies, a V-shape is what is in store for us.”
Travel agents are encouraged to continue sharing feedback with Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations. Stay tuned as Air Canada will host a second virtual town hall for trade partners on Monday, April 19, 2021.
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