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Sunday,  May 19, 2024 10:25 AM 

“Left behind again”: Independent travel advisors sound off on Budget 2023

“Left behind again”: Independent travel advisors sound off on Budget 2023
From top, left, clockwise (of ACITA): Brenda Slater; Lynda Dennis; Nancy Wilson; Heather Kearns. (Supplied)
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.

The team at the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) is expressing disappointment with the federal budget that was released by the Liberals on Tuesday (March 28), noting its lack of sector-specific support. 

“I’m disappointed that there were no strides in protecting independent travel advisors (ITAs), agencies or all ‘gig workers’ in the future,” said ACITA Co-Founder Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach. “But we [ACITA] continue to push to find a solution with our government contacts, with ongoing meetings.”

Travel agents and agencies were among the hardest-hit at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when travel restrictions brought the industry to a near-halt.

During those dark days of lockdown, leading federal aid programs, such as the CEBA, CERS, CEWS and RRRF, excluded many small travel businesses.

READ MORE: Budget 2023 - Billions for improving air travel experience, but no direct support for travel advisors

ITAs, in particular, didn’t receive the same level of support as storefront travel agencies, who were able to use wage and rent subsidies to stay afloat.

Possible solutions were proposed. The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), with ACITA’s endorsement, submitted an independent travel agent relief proposal (ITARP) to the federal government in January 2022 to create equity between ITAs and other travel and tourism small businesses.

However, following Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s plan to phase out federal aid in 2022, that idea did not pass.  

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled Budget 2023 on Tuesday (March 28) (File photo)

“There is once again nothing concrete for travel advisors, particularly as small business owners,” said ACITA’s Lynda Dennis, a travel advisor with The Travel Agent Next Door, commenting on Budget 2023. 

“This speaks in vague/grey terms of supports for ‘travel.’ Are we to believe we might be supported in the event of another pandemic-like crisis if we are once again lumped in with seasonal/gig workers? It isn’t clear at all where we stand.”

Flight delays, misplaced luggage

This year’s budget proposes better airport and airline service for passengers as Ottawa tries to tackle the flight delays, wait times and misplaced baggage that plagued air travel in 2022 – and that, to a degree, continues to disrupt aviation today.

The budget proposes $1.8-billion over five years to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to maintain and increase service levels, improve screening wait times and strengthen airport security measures.

The budget also proposes legislative changes that will require sharing and reporting of data by airports and airlines to help reduce delays and improve operations. Transport Canada, for one, will get $5.2 million over five years to collect and analyze air-sector performance data.

READ MORE: Burden of air passenger rules should be on airlines, not travellers, says Alghabra

To help pay for CATSA funding, Ottawa said it would increase the security charge levied on air travellers by 32.85 per cent starting May 1, 2024.

What this means is that fees for a one-way domestic flight will rise to $9.94 from $7.48. For an international flight, fees will increase to $34.42 from $25.91.

The Liberals are also reiterating a plan to amend the Canada Transportation Act to strengthen airline obligations, via the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), to compensate passengers for delays and cancellations.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has hinted that new legislation, set to arrive this spring, may update the rules so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the heavily-backlogged Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a quasi-judicial agency that oversees air passenger complaints.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra. (File photo)

“It should have never got to this point”

But this highlights another gap in Budget 2023, says TravelOnly’s Nancy Wilson, who is also an ACITA co-founder. 

“While it is encouraging to hear there will be changes to the APPR, there needs to be huge improvements, and penalties associated with denying compensation that is owed,” Wilson told PAX. “Over Christmas, my clients had an issue with cancellations, like so many others. Upon submission to United Airlines, they were provided a refund within a week. No questions asked. Why are so many requests for compensation being denied in Canada? This needs to change.”

READ MORE: Ottawa announces $75.9M to tackle air passenger complaints backlog, pledges to close “loophole”

She said this is now “falling on the taxpayers backs” to resolve due to the backlog of complaints at the CTA.

“It should have never got to this point,” Wilson said.

Travellers pass through Toronto Pearson airport. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

ACITA’s Heather Kearns of Latitude Concierge Travels criticizes Budget 2023 for only focusing on inbound tourism.

(Destination Canada will receive $50 million to attract international conventions, conferences, and events to Canada. Money will also go towards funding local arts and National Museums).

“There’s nothing for those of us who bolster the Canadian economy by booking internationally through Canadian tour operators,” Kearns pointed out. “So, while they get a continuous support system, we are once again left with no guarantees.”

“I’m not surprised that we’ve been left behind again, but it shows how strong independent travel advisors are collectively. We’re still standing after all we’ve been through.”

Another sting

The “hefty” 23.85 per cent increase to the air travellers’ security charge is also “unfortunate,” Kearns added.

“The levy will not impact the wealthy or well-to-do, but for those who count their pennies in order to be able to fly, it’s another sting. It’s more tone deafness from people who’ve never had to make a decision based on cost.”

In a statement, ACTA said it was “discouraged but not surprised” by the 2023 budget – “as all indications leading up to the budget were that it would be an austerity budget based on the current economic environment and the massive relief expenditures during the pandemic.”

The association, which submitted a pre-budget consultation paper to the Finance Committee last October, is concerned that there are ongoing “critical issues” that still affect travel agencies and travel advisors, such as debt relief from pandemic support.

ACTA said it will continue to “lay the groundwork for debt relief” and ramp up grassroots advocacy efforts “at the appropriate time.”

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