Saturday,  September 25, 2021  8:12 am

“This is a kick-start:” ACV’s Nino Montagnese shares the scoop on re-starting travel in June

“This is a kick-start:” ACV’s Nino Montagnese shares the scoop on re-starting travel in June
Nino Montagnese, managing director, Air Canada Vacations. (Geoff Fitzgerald/Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

It was a quiet Thursday night until phones started lighting up and news alerts began to ping.

The word was out: Air Canada Vacations (ACV) was resuming its operating schedule, starting in June, with select flights to destinations down south and beyond.

The news was shared in a letter to travel advisors penned by Nino Montagnese, managing director at ACV:

“While the schedule is still a reduction to what we are used to during this time of year, Air Canada will be offering service to certain key destinations including, Cancún, Barbados, Varadero, Cayo Coco, Montego Bay, Paris, Athens and Barcelona, among many others,” Montagnese wrote to the trade on May 7th.

The announcement was immediately met with a wave of industry response on social media, with many travel advisors and suppliers singing hallelujah. 

Let’s be honest: it’s the first piece of good news this industry has heard in a while.

But the announcement was also met with an equal dose of skepticism.

There’s a pile of questions that remain in regards to how ACV intends on sending people on vacation while the impacts of COVID-19 are still as real as the government-imposed travel restrictions that are (still) in place.

Will Canadians really be able to fly to much-loved destinations within a month’s time?

Montagnese thinks so, but within a reduced, limited, scaled-back capacity.

“Destinations are opening up for business and we feel there are customers who want to travel,” Montagnese told PAX over the phone, the morning after he sent his letter.

Air Canada will be re-starting routes to select destinations in June. (Supplied)

Is June THE month?

Montagnese points out that Air Canada has already been operating some international routes throughout the pandemic (not at full capacity, mind you) and that select destinations are slowing inching towards a re-opening.

Case in point: officials from the Quintana Roo Tourism Promotion Council are adamant on re-opening the Mexican state to international travel on June 1st.

Restrictions and lockdowns are still active in many destinations, but June is absolutely gaining steam as the month for when tourism resumes.

Sandals Resorts, for one, has confirmed that it will re-open 18 properties in Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Turks & Caicos starting on June 4th.

Last Friday, Lufthansa revealed that it will reactive 80 aircraft and resume service to 106 destinations, all starting in June.

Copa Airlines, too, has announced plans to re-start operations on June 1st.

Then there’s the U.S. carriers. United Airlines, for instance, will be resuming several routes in June and has plans to add several more throughout the summer.

American Airlines will be re-launching its Chicago to Athens, London and Dublin; Dallas to Amsterdam, Bogota and Frankfurt; and Los Angeles to London. Again, in June.

Maybe a slow and gradual return to air travel next month isn’t that far-fetched after all?

Let’s be clear: these planned service resumptions – Air Canada’s included – represent a small percentage of a normal operating schedule. They can also change at any time.

But can we honestly expect the market to collectively hop onto a plane so soon? Especially given all the restrictions, setbacks and health scares we’ve heard about, seen and endured so far this year?

No, we can’t expect that at all, which is something that Montagnese recognizes.  

Air travel this June is “not for everyone,” he said, “but there are still customers that want to get away.”

Families and seniors may not be at the top of this list, but Montagnese is certain there’s customers, such as solo travellers and couples who “missed their winter vacation,” who will jump at the opportunity to travel if given one.

This is the type of clientele that trade partners should focus on right now, he said.

“If they want to use those future travel credits they’ve got sitting with us, they can utilize those to book,” said Montagnese.

Of course, there’s still potential barriers that could impact travel in the next three to six to twelve months.

Talk of a second wave of COVID-19 (not to put it out there) has been openly discussed in healthcare circles.  

READ MORE: Air Canada Vacations announces June return

We’re not out of the woods yet, but these movements from airlines could be a sign of a tiny light, flickering in the distance.

“I would like this to be the beginning of a road to recovery for our industry,” said Montagnese. “This is a kick-start.”

“I would like this to be the beginning of a road to recovery for our industry,” said Montagnese. “This is a kick-start.” (Geoff Fitzgerald/Pax Global Media)

What about the travel ban?

Make no mistake: the elephant in the room (at least right now) is the fact that Canadians, under federal order, are still bound to a non-essential travel ban and provinces each have their own set of COVID-19 rules and restrictions.

Anyone entering Canada is also required to self-isolate for 14 days, whether or not they have symptoms of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of May, Canada has taken baby steps towards easing the restrictions that brought life, as we once knew it, to a halt.

Ontario, for example, has relaxed some coronavirus restrictions, allowing nurseries, garden centres and hardware stores to open, while letting retail stores with street entrances to offer curb-side pickup.

Quebec, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, is also easing up on what businesses can and cannot do.

Alberta even has plans to re-open some restaurants as early as May 14th.

Is this all happening too fast?

There’s evidence that suggests that Canadians are actually OK with the speed at which life is returning, according to a recent survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies.

The poll, which surveyed 1,526 adults between May 1st-3rd, 2020, found that Canadians are mostly comfortable with the pace at which restrictions are being lifted in their communities.

The results vary by province, but between 60 and 70 per cent are happy with the actions being taken, the poll found.

At this rate, it’s quite possible that easing Canada’s travel restrictions could be next, which will give airlines the green light they need to properly resume operations. 

And, yes, other countries will have to open their borders, too, if Canadians intend on flying anywhere.

There’s still a lot of “ifs” at play, but Montagnese is “very optimistic” that the travel economy will re-open in the near future.

“This is so fluid. You can’t predict what will happen,” he said. “But I think Canada has done a good job [at flattening the curve].”

Restoring consumer confidence

Safety comes first in all of this, however, and consumer confidence will ultimately decide when it’s the right time to fly. 

“Everyone is putting safety protocols in place,” said Montagnese.

Air Canada, for one, became the first airline in North and South America to introduce mandatory pre-flight temperature checks.

Air Canada's CleanCare+ program was designed to give customers greater peace of mind. (Air Canada)

As part of a program called CleanCare+passengers must complete health questionnaires and will be given personal space in Economy Class (until June 30th, at least) and receive care kits for hand cleaning and hygiene.

It deploys “electrostatic spraying of cabin interiors” and expands aircraft grooming procedures using “hospital-grade disinfectant and specialized techniques” to maintain cabin cleanliness.

“Our ground crew will have masks on when people arrive,” Montagnese explained. “If a vehicle holds 40 passengers, we may only put 20 passengers on it to respect social distancing. Everyone will have hand sanitizer.”

Preparing for this re-launch didn’t happen overnight either.

Consultations with airports “to see if they were ready to welcome customers” as well as working with hotels and partners to agree on hygiene protocols all went into the planning, Montagnese said.

And as extreme as some of these procedures may sound, it’s a sign of the commitment airlines and tour operators are making to offer customers peace of mind.  

“We have to try,” Montagnese told PAX. “Everyone is doing what they have to do.”

It will be interesting to see how insurance companies adapt to the new realities of travel when Canada’s non-essential travel ban is lifted.

In March, many Canadian travel insurers began halting coverage for cancellations and incidents related to COVID-19, calling the virus a “known” issue.

Travel at your own risk may very well be the tone in the beginning.

(But really, for argument’s sake, some of the destinations Air Canada is returning to didn’t have many cases of COVID-19 to begin with).

What post-pandemic travel will need is a respect for flexibility.

This is why ACV, last week, launched CareFlexPLUS, a travel protection program that allows customers to cancel and receive a full refund up to 25 days prior to departure, change a booking or transfer a package. (Click here for the complete details).

“We want to give agents the tools and flexibility they need to close the sales,” said Montagnese. “It could be for travel in June, it could be for July or onwards. We all have a tough job ahead of us.”

So, time will tell. 

“I know the industry wants to book, I know some consumers want to fly,” said Montagnese. “Let’s see what happens.”

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