Last Friday (Jan. 15), Sunwing officially modified its on-board service, temporarily suspending the sale of meals, excursions and duty-free items during flights in exchange for a pre-ordering system.
It’s a brow-raising move, at least at first glance, for an airline and tour operator that prides itself on having an award-winning inflight experience that’s known for including extra frills.
But there’s more to this service slash than meets the sky.
"Less is more"
Since restarting operations on Nov. 6, 2020, unveiling a scaled-down network of flights from select Canadian cities to Mexico and the Caribbean, Sunwing, like all carriers, has had to take a closer look at what it means to sell vacations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promoting its comprehensive “Safe With Sunwing” program has been the company’s lead strategy, from the outset, in restoring consumer confidence in travel during these uncertain times.
Supported by end-to-end health and safety protocols, medical expertise and technology (all aircraft, these days, are cleaned using AEGIS Microbe Shield, a powerful antimicrobial spray that attacks bacteria on surfaces), the pieces are all in place to practice safe and responsible travel.
Now, two months into it all, it’s time for tweaks as Sunwing takes cues from the feedback its pandemic-era travellers have shared over these past couple of months.
And one of the things customers have been saying is this: at times, there’s just too much stuff happening in the aisles during flights.
“Simply put, in regards comfort levels, passengers are telling us that less is more,” Marcella Howley, vice-president, inflight operations at Sunwing, told PAX over the phone on Friday when the new policy launched.
In other words, the days of crews roving the aisles to sell items on board – whether it be turkey wraps, excursions or bottles of vodka from duty free – are over (for now, at least) as a new generation of travellers, groomed for social distancing, demand more personal space.
In-flight sales, naturally, require crews to interact with passengers, which can lead to “lots of conversations going back and forth,” Howley explained.
Whether or not staff (or customers for that matter) are speaking moistly, even if wearing a face mask, is irrelevant.
It’s the fact that sales involve several one-on-one interactions, from answering questions about menu items to processing payments to friendly chit-chat. Sales take time.
In an age where every interaction is clocked and accounted for, there is (unfortunately) less room for these cornerstones of customer service, regardless if it’s in the air or on the ground.
“Crews can be in the aisle for quite some time,” Howley said. “In listening to passengers, we’ve found that there is a slight discomfort with this.”
“We know [flying] is safe, but we also have to look at comfort.”
Pre-ordering is the new black
All this is not to say that Sunwing’s on-board offering has come to a halt.
The compromise, here, is that items Sunwing previously sold during flights are still available, but for pre-order only.
Meals from The Sunwing Cafe must now be booked at least 48 hours before flights using the Sunwing App or through the My Booking Portal on Sunwing.ca.
Meals are delivered to the passenger's seat at a designated time. (Click here to view the pre-order menu).
This new approach is a “temporary measure,” Howley told PAX.
Basic beverages, however, are still offered, as per usual, as are snacks and boxed treats (yes, you can still get Pringles and Kit Kats during flights).
Also, recognizing that people have to remove their masks to nosh, Sunwing has implemented a 15-minute rule for eating so people aren’t flying maskless for long periods of time.
(This, as per guidance and recommendations by Transport Canada issued to all airlines, which you can view here).
It’s a strongly-recommended advisory, really, but it’s serious enough that crew actually announce the 15-minute time limit over the cabin intercom.
“Every bit of what we do has been scrutinized,” said Howley, naming other in-flight precautions Sunwing has embraced, such as eliminating touchpoints, like communal pens and paper products from backseat pockets.
Duty free is also no longer available for purchase on board.
But, passengers can pre-order duty-free purchases a minimum of 72 hours prior to their flight using the Sunwing App or on SunwingDutyFree.com and have their items delivered to their seat.
The same goes for purchasing excursions on board.
Now, the onus is on the passenger to buy an excursion prior to takeoff (ideally in advance, though their travel advisor, so they can get the experience they want) or book it in destination, which can now be done via Sunwing’s new virtual concierge.
Pre-ordering makes sense as airlines and tour operators find new ways to streamline operations during the pandemic.
In the short term, the new system may irk passengers who, for whatever reason, weren’t aware that they had to order their smoked meat sandwich in advance.
But it’s a small price to pay for the sake of making air travel more comfortable, for everyone, in these turbulent times.
“When we say ‘Safe with Sunwing,’ we certainly live by that,” Howley said.
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