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.
Travel advisors in Saskatchewan are starting the New Year with disappointed clients, mounting paperwork and thousands of dollars in lost income after Sunwing, last week, pulled the plug on sun flights from the province’s two biggest cities for more than a month.
On Dec. 29, Sunwing revealed that flights out of Saskatoon and Regina airports would be suspended immediately up to (and including) Friday, Feb. 3.
The move came after a winter storm crippled air travel across the country during the holiday rush, disrupting the itineraries of thousands of Canadians travelling with Sunwing and other airlines.
Before and after Christmas, travellers were reportedly stuck on unmoving planes for hours, while others were left at airports in destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean after their return flight home was cancelled or delayed.
Last week, Sunwing scrambled to secure recovery flights for its stranded customers returning home to Saskatchewan and elsewhere.
On Tuesday (Jan. 3), the tour operator announced that its recovery efforts were complete.
But travel advisors in Saskatchewan – and agents with clients in the Prairie Province – are still feeling the sting as they face a big hole in their business now that Sunwing flights out of Saskatoon and Regina are scrapped until February.
“My clients are all super disappointed”
So far, it appears Sunwing will not be protecting commissions for the trips it cancelled, as per a memo that was sent to travel advisors last week that PAX has viewed.
For Humboldt, SK-based Alison Berk of Alison Berk Travel, the Prairie pullout comes as a major blow.
She said it disrupted 16 bookings she had with the tour operator – “which is pretty small compared to some of my colleagues who had to cancel up to 60.”
“My clients are all super disappointed, but they have been very nice to me about it,” Berk told PAX. “Some want to rebook right away while others want to wait it out a bit.”
Still, she feels the rug has been pulled out from under her.
“I do know that with what is going on, and how we have been treated, I will have a hard time supporting Sunwing now and into the future,” said Berk, saying she feels “defeated” by the situation.
The mass flight cancellations that occurred during the holidays hasn’t helped matters either.
On Friday (Dec. 30), Berk was still trying to fly home clients that had been stuck in Mazatlán, Mexico since Dec. 23.
“I’ve worked so hard and have cared so much about every client’s vacation, only to have it crushed,” she said. “This will be the year Sunwing ruined Christmas.”
PAX has reached out to Sunwing for comment twice since last week and has not yet received a response.
Berk said Sunwing gave her until Dec. 30 to change the travel dates for clients who were impacted by the temporary suspension.
But she’s worried people will just choose to cancel, which would recall any commission she would have earned on the booking.
Rescheduling clients to February isn’t an attractive option either.
“In Saskatchewan, we are so limited. Prices are crazy in February because of the school break and lots of flights are already full,” she said. “And will Sunwing even be operating in February?”
“We have failed to deliver”
Sunwing, in October, announced its return to Saskatchewan, unveiling a winter schedule of weekly sun flights to destinations in Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The tour operator said it planned to supplement seasonal demand for travel from Regina and Saskatoon with the assistance of temporary foreign pilots for winter.
“When foreign pilot deployment was not agreed to, we brought in subservices to sustain our operations, however the conditions and schedule have proven too significant for our subserviced aircraft partners,” the company stated on Dec. 29.
Sunwing said it attempted to reposition its aircraft, but were unable to do so as a result of the holiday flight delays and cancellations, as well as the heavy demand.
“We recognize that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to deliver on our customers’ expectations, and we deeply apologize for not meeting the standards of service our Saskatoon and Regina customers rightfully expect,” the company wrote.
Customers in Saskatchewan impacted by the suspensions have the option of receiving a full refund, Sunwing says.
Speaking with CBC News last Thursday (Dec. 29), James Bogusz, president and CEO of the Regina Airport Authority, called Sunwing a “long-term partner for the Regina airport,” but said it wasn’t common to see an airline suspend service in order to deal with operational issues.
“I’m literally out tens of thousands of dollars”
Warman, SK-based travel consultant Ashley Doell, owner of Doell Travel, is "absolutely devastated" by the situation as Sunwing, she said, makes up more than 50 per cent of Saskatoon’s options for sun destinations.
“January has always been the month with the most travellers and most new bookings,” Doell told PAX, which is why Sunwing’s last-minute suspensions impact her small business “in a huge way.”
“With the offer of a refund to everyone and immediate recall of my commissions, I’m literally out tens of thousands of dollars,” Doell said. “The accounting work that needs to be done is an absolute nightmare – not to mention the countless insurance policies that will now need to be cancelled and refunded in full and, once again, commission I won’t be paid on.”
Doell had a destination wedding group of nearly 70 people that were supposed to leave on Jan. 8. That trip is now cancelled.
“That was the first call I made when I got the news so the bride would hear it from me first,” Doell said. “They’re devastated. Their guests are angry. Emails and calls don’t seem to stop and now I don’t know where my income is coming from moving forward.”
“This group was worked on for an entire year and it just got ripped out from under me.”
Doell said her head office is fighting on her behalf to protect commissions and that “they won’t be backing down.”
“I honestly have no words,” she said. “The resorts surely won’t be refunding the money back to Sunwing for the missed hotel stays so agents shouldn’t have to empty their bank accounts either due to mismanagement.”
“This airline has been bailed out one too many times, and this time, the bail out should be for the travel agent community. Enough is enough.”
Travel advisors should be paid for the work they have done (and will now need to undo) on Sunwing’s behalf, said Rosthern, SK-based Kelly Klassen of Trevello.
Klassen said she did her due diligence in securing 49 family/multi-room bookings for Sunwing and, not to mention, two large groups – one of which was a corporate trip with 100 people.
She said just 20 per cent of her clients that were impacted by Sunwing's pullout are rebooking.
“I simply do not have the time to rebook and re-quote everyone,” said Klassen, who believes Sunwing had full control of the situation. “I am only one person.”
Klassen added that she “worked tirelessly” for the past six months to make her clients’ vacation dreams comes true.
“I have not had one single day off,” she said. “I take my laptop with me everywhere. I missed hockey games, volleyball games, shopping days with my girls, quality time with my family, Christmas Day memories and quality time with my brother’s family over New Years as I worked to serve my clients. I sacrificed a little bit of myself every time...only to find out that 70 per cent of my work may not be compensated.”
“I sacrificed my time for a company that did not value me or my efforts.”
Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Trevello, said she and her team are working with Sunwing "to mitigate this mess" and to make sure impacted customers are taken care of.
"We all understand the impact of weather, which, unfortunately, ruined many vacations," Gedeon said.
Trevello is also working with the tour operator to mitigate the impact the Saskatchewan suspensions have on customers and its travel advisors, she said.
"Sunwing has been a very good partner and have come through on many occasions," Gedeon told PAX. "I have to believe that they will come through on this one too."
In a statement to PAX, Transport Canada noted how frustrating flight delays and cancellations are for travellers.
“Transport Canada will continue to work with all air sector partners to do everything in its power to ensure that Canadians can travel safely and securely during the holiday season,” wrote Allison St-Jean, a spokesperson for the federal transport minister’s office.
“We also recognize all the work that travel advisors do to help their consumers.”
The department did not comment on protecting travel agent commissions “as the issue does not fall under federal jurisdiction.”
PAX, however, has replied with a second request for comment, reminding the office that Transport Minister Omar Alghabra publicly supported commission protections for travel agents in April 2021 when Ottawa was negotiating COVID relief agreements with Canada’s airlines.
Last week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called Sunwing’s decision to suspend flights from Saskatoon and Regina “irresponsible.”
Transport Canada, meanwhile, has been in contact with Sunwing to address the holiday travel situation, according to a separate statement obtained by the Canadian Press.
“Canadians deserve answers!"
The chair of the House of Commons transport committee on Tuesday (Jan. 3) called for Sunwing (and Via Rail, which grappled with holiday travel disruptions of its own) to answer for their holiday travel mess.
Liberal MP Peter Schiefke wrote in a tweet that he will convene a committee meeting and call for representatives from both companies to appear as witnesses.
Schiefke said Canadians deserve answers for the “unacceptable delays and cancellations'' that plagued holiday travel.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, shortly afterwards, tweeted that “it will be an important discussion.”
“Canadians deserve answers!” he wrote.
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