“Ninety-three per cent of our schedule continues to fly,” said Nino Montagnese, vice-president of Air Canada Vacations (ACV). “I would continue to sell with confidence.”
In response to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, and renewed government regulations, Air Canada, this week, announced plans to temporarily suspend service to 14 sun destinations from Jan. 24 to April 30, 2022.
But ACV’s VP, who announced the news in a letter to trade partners on Wednesday (Jan. 5), is urging travel advisors to maintain perspective on the matter.
While nobody likes flight cancellations – which, yes, do cause headaches for agents who have to field questions from clients and reprocess files – Air Canada’s “Omicron suspension,” if you could call it that, impacts just seven per cent of customers.
“The flights we temporarily cancelled were going to be very light,” Montagnese told PAX in a telephone interview yesterday (Jan. 6). “The impacted destinations are important to us, but they were one-offs with one or two flights a week.”
The suspended routes include service to Antigua, Aruba, Samaná, Curaçao, Exuma, Grenada, Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, Bermuda, Grand Cayman, Havana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, and Saint Kitts and Nevis.
Refunds & the timeline
Affected travellers will be issued a full refund for the trip and anything else they purchased, such as ACV’s Carefree/Careflex protection plans.
The refunds will happen automatically in order of departure date and, in turn, trigger an invoice to the agency that made the booking.
If customers want to rebook: “Treat it like a new booking,” Montagnese advised. The refund is automatic and “there’s no need to call us,” he said.
As for the timeline of the suspension, which is active through spring, there was a method to the madness: Air Canada purposely waited until the end of holiday season to announce the cuts, Montagnese said.
“We didn’t want to affect anyone’s winter vacation,” he said. “We wanted them to enjoy it.”
But 23 routes to sun destinations are set to continue this winter, Montagnese stressed, even if business is taking a hit due to re-introduced travel advisories and rising cases of COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of service still being offered,” he said, noting the dozens of weekly Air Canada flights that are still taking off to popular hot spots like Cancun and Punta Cana.
And, yes, given Omicron’s ruthless impact on staffing and travel demand, there’s a chance those still-active routes may experience interruptions. But Montagnese assured that those passengers will be reprotected with options either on the same day or on the soonest date possible.
“We always want people to travel instead of a cancellation,” he said. “We want agents to make their full commission.”
Clearing up commission confusion
Speaking of commissions: for ACV files affected by the suspensions, travel agent earnings will be protected up to a maximum of five per cent.
That wasn’t, at first, properly communicated on Wednesday when the flight suspensions were announced – an FAQ from last year that was sent to agents and media that day suggested that recalls were imminent.
As travel advisors, understandably, protested this policy on social media, ACV’s FAQ was quickly updated that same day to reflect new information.
“From the beginning, commissions were always meant to be protected at a minimum of five per cent,” Montagnese confirmed.
ACV has various commission levels, ranging from four, five and eight per cent, and the decision was made to take the middle amount.
“No one is making money,” Montagnese said, “but if we can support our trade partners with a little bit of commission on files they worked hard on, we will. I wish we could pay a lot more, but it’s just not possible.”
Fake news attacks
Commission protection wasn’t the only confusing thing in Air Canada’s world this week.
Two days before the flight suspensions were revealed, a Caribbean-based news outlet falsely reported that Air Canada was on the verge of suspending all service to Mexico and the Caribbean.
It’s assumed the outlet, Loop Caribbean, was using old information related to last year’s agreement between the Government of Canada and Canadian airlines to suspend sun service until April 2021.
Still, the inaccurate story was circulated by several other Caribbean media outlets and prompted a stern tweet from Air Canada’s Twitter account, telling the outlet at fault that its information was, in fact, from a January 2021 press release.
When it came time for Air Canada to announce real sun suspensions – which clearly did not impact all of Mexico and the Caribbean – some agents, those who didn't read the full notice, were spotted shouting “fake news!” from the rafters of Facebook, creating brief moments of confusion over what was true and what wasn’t.
As to how the false story happened, Montagnese said Air Canada’s product team was, confidentially, giving destinations a “heads up” in advance that suspensions were coming and, in this process, the information was leaked to local media, which then “googled and picked up a previous story from last year.”
The incident highlighted the importance of clicking news links to read and verify stories and, for the media outlet that messed up, how misreading a detail, like a year, can cause online bedlam.
Bad news & good news
The bad news is this: The Canadian government’s Dec. 15 decision to re-introduce its non-essential travel advisory has had a damaging impact on ACV’s – and likely everyone else’s – business, causing thousands of trip cancellations.
“It really put a halt to everything,” Montagnese told PAX. “December was going to be the first month where we would have had no losses. And it turned right around.”
December was hit hard – “and January and February are no better,” he added.
While the industry may feel trepidation when déjà vu is triggered (because we’ve been down this road before), the current situation is also “a sign of how far we’ve come,” Montagnese said.
“Based on the lessons learned in 2021, we’ve implemented the necessary policies and procedures to help our industry weather the storm,” Montagnese wrote in his letter to the trade.
The main lesson, for ACV, is to “look at everything with wide eyes, knowing that we’re on our fourth wave [of COVID-19],” Montagnese told PAX.
“We weren’t prepared for the first wave. By the second one, we understood what was happening. Now, we know exactly what we need to do,” he said. “It’s about refunding customers, protecting commissions and making sure customers have the information they need.”
This included ACV increasing its number of self-service tools to allow travel agents manage their clients’ bookings online.
But long telephone wait times remain a stressful challenge, an issue related to staffing that Montagnese calls “a vicious circle.”
“We’ve been trying to hire call centre employees for the past eight months,” he said. “But the travel industry has been hardest hit. You’ve got an influx of people saying, ‘I’m done.’ People have left.”
“You can’t be prepared if people are not applying for your jobs.”
Even if ACV has increased its hourly pay by almost three dollars and enhanced its benefits to make call centre jobs more attractive, “people are finding it hard to enter an industry that’s being tackled right now,” said Montagnese, adding that he sees roughly three to four call centre resignations each week.
“People are waiting on hold, and by the time they get through, they yell and scream,” he said. “It’s stressful sitting on phones.”
On this issue, Montagnese, sympathetic to agents who have faced long wait times, said the industry must try and help each other instead of spreading negativity. “It’s the best thing we can do,” he said.
As for the good news: despite current challenges, including the barriers associated with pre-arrival PCR testing, ACV’s summer schedule is loaded, “people are booking already,” and "Europe is starting to trend nicely," Montagnese said.
His advice to travel agents? “Sell with confidence,” he said, “because we’re coming out of this pandemic on the other side.”
“We’ve weathered many storms and we’re still standing. We’re going to get through this one as well. We’re almost there. We need to hang in there and support each other.”
“The fruits of our labour will come in the years to come. I know a lot of us are going through a rough time, but hang in there.”