Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Last month, Sunwing announced plans to work with ultra low-cost carrier Swoop as part of a greater effort to expand its lift options to Mexico this winter.
The move emphasized the ease and convenience of local, smaller-city airports – Swoop-friendly gateways in Hamilton, London, Abbotsford, Edmonton and Winnipeg specifically.
“Saving our customers time and money by providing convenient, direct flight services from their local airport has always been a key priority for us,” Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations for Sunwing, said in a statement on Sept. 27th.
Sunwing joining forces with Swoop ultimately offers sun-seekers more lift option to Mexican destinations where Swoop currently flies, notably Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, and Mazatlán.
“It’s a privilege to be entrusted with carrying Sunwing travellers onboard Swoop flights to our extensive network in Mexico,” Steven Greenway, president of Swoop, said in a statement. “Partnering with a well-respected tour operator who shares our vision of making travel affordable and more accessible is a welcome opportunity for Canadians who want to travel more.”
But in Canadian travel trade circles, the news “swooped” out of left field, so to speak, as Swoop does not pay commission to travel advisors.
And, at the time of Sunwing’s announcement, Swoop was, notably, coming off a turbulent summer of bad press.
In July, Swoop abruptly cancelled 23 flights after unscheduled maintenance was required to replace an engine aboard one of its aircraft.
Then, in August, the carrier issued an apology after a damaged plane was grounded, resulting in a total of seven cancelled flights.
READ MORE: Sunwing & Swoop team up
In both cases, hundreds of travelling Canadians were left scrambling for alternatives, and travel agents pretty much had the last laugh.
A quick glance at PAX’s Facebook page, and the words “shoulda used a travel agent” was a consistent quip in response to the whole mess.
So what, then, led Sunwing to align itself with an ultra low-cost carrier that has courted so much controversy?
And, more importantly, what does the new arrangement mean for Canadian travel agents?
“We’re going into it with some good hopes and guarantees,” Dave Wright, director of sales for Ontario and Atlantic Canada at Sunwing, told PAX in a recent interview. “We hope it’s going to be a big success.”
Looking back on Swoop’s slippery summer, Wright is confident the low-cost carrier is back on track and ready to take on the winter rush.
“I think they’ve got their mess all cleaned up,” Wright told PAX.
Indeed, all of Canada's airlines had logistical messes to mop up this year after Boeing’s 737 Max 8 fleet was grounded globally this spring following two fatal crashes.
Swoop, which is owned by WestJet, doesn’t operate Max jets. However, it's not uncommon for airlines to turn to their parent companies or charters to replace capacity if, for example, a Swoop plane was parked for longer-than-usual maintenance.
Spare airplanes were hard to come by this summer as airlines everywhere utilized whatever surplus they had to make up for lost seats following the Boeing fiasco, which is one possible theory behind Swoop’s summer woes.
Wright says the Boeing groundings caused problems for many airlines – Sunwing included.
“We had to re-do our schedule numerous times because of the lack of aircraft,” Wright said, noting that Sunwing’s upcoming winter schedule is ready to go, whether the Max 8 returns or not.
Call it “an agreement”
Rather than a partnership, Wright calls Sunwing’s relationship with Swoop “an agreement.”
“It’s about getting more people on a Sunwing vacation and more people down to the hotels with rooms we have contracts with,” Wright said.
Filling hotel rooms in specific markets is a key piece to the Sunwing-Swoop equation, Wright said.
There’s Sunwing’s own properties, such as Royalton Luxury Resorts, RIU Hotels and Resorts, Planet Hollywood Hotels and Resorts, to name a few, and then there's hotels Sunwing has contracts with, such as AMResorts, Barcelo and Meliá Hotels.
“We needed additional lift to fill these rooms,” Wright told PAX.
Sharing planes with other airlines isn’t a new concept to Sunwing either, Wright noted.
“In the early days of the Max 8s being grounded, we had to scramble to get other airlines we could use,” he said.
Commissions stay the same
What travel agents should know about the agreement is that they’ll still receive the standard eight per cent commission for booking a Sunwing vacation (for both land and air), even if their client or clients happen to be flying on a Swoop airplane.
“The packages are fully commissionable,” Wright said. “People will be booking a Sunwing vacation, but the flight might just be on a Swoop aircraft.”
To that end, Sunwing customers flying with Swoop still receive the same perks that come with a Sunwing vacation, such as one complimentary item of checked luggage, round-trip airport to hotel transfers, assistance from Sunwing Experiences representatives throughout, the pre-purchased Sunwing Experiences excursions option at the time of booking and more.
That differs from what standard Swoop customers receive - passengers who book directly through Swoop must pay for a checked bag, for example.
Mind you, Sunwing customers flying with Swoop won’t necessarily experience the on-board amenities that come with a true Sunwing flight, such as the same food and beverage options. And, obviously, Swoop pilots and crew will run the show on Swoop flights.
But Sunwing customers will know in advance if they are, in fact, flying with Swoop. Both a Sunwing and Swoop reference number will be provided at the time of booking, which gives customers the option of advanced check-in and seat selection, Wright said.
Ultimately, the alliance is about offering Sunwing customers more flexibility in their travel times.
Looking ahead at Sunwing's winter flight schedule to Cancun, Wright already sees a range of new departure times out of his hometown of Hamilton, ON.
“We used to have six flights a week, now we have three more. Those three new ones are on a Swoop aircraft,” he said. “It gives passengers more options in case they want to go on a different day of the week."
Wright added that Sunwing treats it's customers the same, regardless of which aircraft they are flying on. Even if, for example, Sunwing passengers happen to encounter a delay with their Swoop aircraft.
“Even though they’re flying on Swoop, they’re still Sunwing passengers. We’d be looking to do as much as we can for them, whether that means putting pressure on Swoop to get the flight out as fast as possible or replace the plane with something else," Wright said.
“That’s what we do in Toronto now,” he added. “If something is delayed, we try our very best to get passengers out as soon as possible.”
While the program will initially only be available from the five aforementioned airports, Sunwing confirmed with PAX in an emailed statement that “we will be watching the program closely to see if there are opportunities to expand the number of airports and destinations for the future.”
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