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.
WestJet’s decision to offer refunds to some customers whose flights were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked Canada’s travel advisor community, leaving many shocked, angered and frustrated during an already-difficult time for business.
“I am furious, to say the least,” Mike Kroeker of Winnipeg, MB-based Bonaventure Travel, told PAX, sharing his initial reaction to the news. “WestJet didn’t even consult the trades or agency channel before making this announcement.”
WestJet is now offering refunds for select flights between Canada and the United States and the United Kingdom that were cancelled during the coronavirus crisis.
The news, which subtly surfaced in the trade and mainstream media on Friday afternoon (May 5th), makes WestJet the first major Canadian carrier to offer refunds instead of travel vouchers to customers whose trips were cancelled due to recent travel restrictions.
“This is an option for some guests with international itineraries that were cancelled by WestJet due to the COVID-19 crisis,” WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell wrote PAX in an email on Friday. “We are carefully monitoring the regulatory frameworks in all its operated jurisdictions. As this is a rapidly evolving situation, we encourage guests to check our website regularly for up-to-date information pertaining to COVID-19.”
WestJet is now contacting guests with eligible flights who have already had their refund processed to Travel Bank to allow them the option of a refund, Bell said.
READ MORE: WestJet now offering refunds for select cancelled flights
The refund policy does not include itineraries within Canada or to continental Europe, Mexico or the Caribbean, nor does it apply to passengers who chose to cancel their trip ahead of time.
Refunds, also, would effectively recall any commission owed to travel advisors.
“I feel like we’re at their mercy"
“I feel like we’re at their mercy. We’ve already done so much work we will never be paid for, and now this,” said Calgary-based advisor Tannis Dyrland, owner of Travel With Tannis, an affiliate of The Travel Agent Next Door.
In addition to the time spent claiming refunds for eligible clients, Dyrland says she’s now fielding calls from customers that aren’t eligible for refunds (ie: those who flew to sun destinations) who are also requesting money back.
“Then we are left to answer why not,” said Dyrland. “It’s frustrating when we’ve already been decimated.”
“Grey area is never good"
Laurie Keith, president of Romantic Planet Vacations in Hamilton, ON, wants to know why she heard about the new policy in the media instead of hearing it from WestJet first.
“I feel we were all just starting to turn a corner until this news came out,” Keith told PAX.
The lack of communication and clarity around the refund policy also complicates matters, Keith said.
“Just give us very clear details and updates to policies that we can take to our clients,” Keith said. “Grey area is never good, especially when clients are already unhappy or feeling uncertain. It puts us [travel advisors] in a negative light when we don't even know the answers. We lose their trust.”
Keith breathed a sigh of relief upon learning that the refunds apply only to flights between the U.S. and the U.K. “Both [jurisdictions] have mandatory refund policies, so it makes sense why WestJet made this decision,” she said.
Still, Keith worries that this will put pressure on other Canadian airlines to follow suit.
“I will fight to the bitter end that we can't make refunds the norm,” said Keith, noting the millions of dollars in commissions that would be recalled if that were to happen. “We'd be doomed. All the ma and pa shops, who are just scraping by, will be gone.”
A "delicate" issue
Last March, hundreds of thousands of flights were cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and most air passengers received vouchers for future travel as a result,.
Since then, thousands of Canadians have called upon the federal government to mandate a sector-wide refund provision for refunds instead of travel credits.
“I strongly believe the decision of issuing future travel vouchers has been the win-win-win scenario for all of us involved – the airlines, the retail travel agencies and the consumer,” Keith told PAX in a previous interview.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has weighed in on the issue of vouchers vs. refunds at his daily press briefings in Ottawa, noting that his government is working with the airlines to resolve this dispute, suggesting that striking the right balance “will be delicate.”
More work, no compensation
Cathy Stradling of TPI Harmony Travel Services believes WestJet must “have some sort of rationale” for introducing refunds for select itineraries.
“In a perfect world, it would be nice if everyone who had flights cancelled could receive a refund, but I would worry about the viability of the airlines, tour operators, and travel advisors who are suffering from decreased bookings and commission recalls,” Stradling told PAX.
Stradling, too, points to the work involved in processing refunds and how advisors won’t be compensated for that time.
“They have essentially already done the work on the booking, and then have to arrange for a Future Travel Credit, or refund, as the client requests. If a refund is granted as opposed to an FTC, then there will likely be a commission recall, so there is no compensation for their work,” Stradling said.
To that end, Stradling believes “there could be extenuating circumstances” whereby a refund might be justifiable. “Maybe they should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” she suggested.
Advisor Justin Clarey of Marlin Travel in Port Hope, ON, said he wasn’t surprised when he heard the news.
“It’s only U.S. and EU jurisdictions, where I think if they fought it, they would have lost anyway,” Clarey said, calling this a personal observation. “WestJet doesn’t have as large of an impact with European destinations, so for them to offer refunds is less impactful than Air Canada doing the same.”
READ MORE: Trudeau: striking a balance in the refund vs. voucher debate "will be delicate"
Another travel advisor, who asked to remain anonymous, told PAX that the “whole part of the vouchers was to save tourism.”
“We are going to see airlines suffer and go bankrupt,” said this particular advisor, who we’ll call “Jane” for the purpose of this article.
The recalling of commissions after hours of unpaid work, said Jane, is particularity disheartening.
“Many travel agents are independent and work from home,” said Jane. “Many of us are single moms trying to support our families and we put everything in our business only to face the reality that we no longer can be of assistance to clients.”
She said that travel advisors have “come to realize that we can no longer survive in this industry.”
“We have no choice but to give up on our business and careers,” she said.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today!