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Friday,  July 19, 2024 5:11 PM 

“A complete disaster”: Anger & frustration as agents clean up mess left by WestJet strike


“A complete disaster”: Anger & frustration as agents clean up mess left by WestJet strike
Travel advisors look back at the mechanic strike that took place at WestJet over the Canada Day long weekend. (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 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.

The mechanics strike at WestJet that ended late Sunday (June 30) left a trail of destruction in its wake – and travel advisors are now cleaning up the mess as best as they can.

The surprise long-weekend strike called by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which represents aircraft maintenance engineers and tech ops, led to more than 1,000 cancelled flights at WestJet, impacting some 100,000 customers.

Clients of Tannis Dyrland, owner & CEO of Calgary, AB-based Tisson Travel Group, were among those caught in the crossfire. 

“We had quite a few people impacted and what a nightmare,” Dyrland told PAX, unpacking the chaotic Canada Day long weekend.

(Pax Global Media/file photo)

From Friday evening (June 28), when the strike began, through to Monday (July 1), WestJet nixed more than 800 flights from its schedule as it parked aircraft at 13 airports across Canada.

READ MORE: WestJet confirms end to AMFA strike, says "returning to business-as-usual flying will take time"

As usual, the direction to customers who booked through a travel advisor was to call their agent and make alternative arrangements.

However, this strategy seemingly fell flat as agents, amid higher-than-usual call volumes, hit a wall.

 “On the travel agent line, agents sat on hold for more than four hours and eventually hung up because they couldn’t get through,” Dyrland said. “There was absolutely no support through any of this.”

Beyond dealing with the blows of a disrupted trip, clients that didn’t purchase insurance had to also swallow the cost of rebooking a flight with another carrier.  

"That was really hard news to deliver,” Dyrland said.

Tannis Dyrland, owner & CEO of Calgary, AB-based Tisson Travel Group. (Supplied)

And then there were the clients that booked through WestJet Vacations, which was offering refunds for cancelled trips – but only for the air portion of the package.

The land (hotel) cost was returned in the form of WestJet Dollars with a one-year expiry date from the date of cancellation, the company wrote on its website.

“People were left to pay for their own hotels for extra nights and days,” Dyrland said. “It was a complete disaster and not handled very well.”

“It’s another example of how our industry requires the support of our federal government when needed.”

WestJet calls for patience

In a statement Monday afternoon, Diederik Pen, president of WestJet Airlines and group chief operating officer, said “we fully recognize the continued impact on our guests and sincerely appreciate their patience and understanding.”

WestJet says it is working around the clock to bring the 130 aircraft back to the skies as quickly as possible.

READ MORE: WestJet mechanics strike led to 1,000+ cancelled flights; airline in recovery mode

And while the strike is over, its impact will continue to be felt this week as cancellations continue. 

WestJet says it needs to recover stranded crew and assign them new schedules and perform maintenance and safety checks on aircraft before its operations can fully restart. 

Trouble in Punta Cana

Meanwhile, Canadian travel advisors are still trying to fix broken links and, in some cases, get their clients home.

For Michelle Mushinski of Toes in the Sand Travel & Weddings, the past few days has been a gong show of communication failures.

Her clients were in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, when the AMFA strike hit.

(WestJet)

Her customers, who were booked with WestJet Vacations, were supposed to return home to Winnipeg on Saturday, June 29.

But that, of course, didn't happen as WestJet began cancelling flights by the hundreds over the weekend. A potential option to fly home on June 30 also fell through.

Mushinski said her stranded clients were given $150.00 per booking for a room in Punta Cana, but didn’t receive any details from WestJet Vacations about which resort they should go to.

There was still no word come check out-time, so her clients just stayed at the resort they were at and booked another night.

"Neither myself or my clients ever heard from WestJet Vacations about being moved to another resort, so it's a good thing they secured their own room,” Mushinski told PAX.

Michelle Mushinski of Toes in the Sand Travel & Weddings. (Supplied)

Then came the hold times. Mushinski says she called WestJet Vacations at 7 a.m. on July 29, and scheduled the earliest callback she could get, which was 12:45 p.m.

Eventually, she got through to an agent “who was awesome to work with,” she said. “But the process was painfully slow.”

"My clients wanted to be put on a different airline, which wasn't an issue, but as fast as the WestJet support team saw flights that may work, the flights were gone before they could even relay them to me,”

Seven hours of waiting

From the time Mushinski reached an agent, it took her seven hours to finally secure her clients a flight home out of PUJ – a segment with United Airlines and Air Canada that required two connections and an overnight.

Unfortunately, that United flight out of Punta Cana was later cancelled due to mechanical issues. This, after Mushinski’s clients sat at the airport for seven hours with multiple delays.

But fortunately, United has been looking after Mushinski’s clients “fantastically,” she said. The airline rebooked them on new flights, put them up at a Breathless for two nights, and even paid for transfers.

If all goes well, they’ll fly out of Punta Cana today and return to Winnipeg tonight.

“I don't blame WestJet Vacations in any way for the long hold times – they were doing their best with a situation they weren't expecting,” Mushinski said. “But there could have been much better communication from the in-destination rep.”

Clients pay out of pocket

Rosthern, SK-based Kelly Klassen of Trevello also had clients stuck in Punta Cana when the strike was called.

The AMFA ending its labour action early Monday didn’t serve them, however, as their WestJet flights home were cancelled on Sunday and rescheduled to July 4.

The situation once again highlighted system inefficiencies – and the importance of travel insurance.

“The horrible thing is that WestJet is only paying $150 CAD per person for hotel – and only for one night,” Klassen said. “This is why travel insurance is so important. My clients now have to miss work and pay out of pocket for a hotel stay that WestJet will not cover.”

Rosthern, SK-based Kelly Klassen of Trevello. (Supplied)

PAX has reached out to WestJet Vacations for further clarification about its policies.

Like others, Klassen also faced painfully long hold times. She waited on hold with WestJet “for hours” on Sunday and finally got through on Monday.

“It took me hours to even get into the queue as their auto response said they were not accepting new calls,” she said.

Vow renewal nightmare

West Kelowna, BC-based Carol LeSann of SunSource Travel called her weekend a “complete nightmare." 

Unfortunately, the strike disrupted a special trip that revolved around her clients renewing vows – again, in Punta Cuna.

The WestJet Vacations package involved two families (totalling eight pax) and cost almost $30,000, LeSann said. The original flight segment from YEG to PUJ (via YYZ) was set to depart on June 30, with a July 1 arrival date.

When WestJet cancelled the flights, LeSann spent two full days either on hold, or working with a WestJet agent, to secure alternative arrangements. 

“My long weekend was ruined,” LeSann said, noting the “panic” she felt in seeing her clients’ vacation “completely disrupted.”

“We would find flights and then they would be scooped up before we could change it,” she said.

In the end, one group left Edmonton Monday on a Porter Airlines flight to Montreal via Toronto (which LeSann says WestJet isn’t paying for). From YUL, they’ll fly on to Punta Cana on July 3 with Air Transat (which WestJet is paying for).

That Porter flight to Montreal, LeSann said, collectively cost her clients $2,000 more. 

Others in the file are leaving Edmonton on July 3, via Toronto, but won’t get to Punta Cana until July 4. They’re flying with Air Canada, and WestJet is paying the flight costs, LeSann said.

But WestJet isn’t paying for the lost resort nights at Dreams Onyx Resort in Punta Cana, LeSann said.

“It has been very stressful and disheartening,” she said. “All this, and I don’t get paid for my time, and my weekend was ruined.”

ACTA calls for fair compensation

The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies and Travel Advisors (ACTA) issued a statement Tuesday (July 2) in response to the situation.

“ACTA is deeply concerned about the impact of the recent WestJet disruptions on travellers, travel agencies, and travel advisors,” the statement says. “While we're relieved the strike has concluded, we recognize the significant challenges it has created.”

“We've heard from many of our members about the extreme difficulties they've faced in rebooking clients and securing appropriate compensation. The situation has placed an undue burden on travel agencies and travel advisors, who have worked tirelessly to assist affected travellers.”

ACTA President Wendy Paradis. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

ACTA goes on to say that while it appreciates the difficulty WestJet faced during the strike, it believes that when airlines face issues within their control resulting in cancellations, “they should take full responsibility for all aspects of their customers' bookings and make their customers whole for any losses incurred.”

“We're also advocating for fair compensation for travel advisors who have spent countless hours managing these disruptions on behalf of their clients. Their time and effort should be recognized and compensated appropriately,” the association said, saying it will push for solutions “that ensure fair treatment.”

If anything, the WestJet strike, much like the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted the value in working with a travel professional.

Apparently, during the chaos of it all, some WestJet customers took to asking travel advisors for help with their disrupted booking – after they booked on their own.

Toronto-based Ethel Hansen Davey of Uniglobe Enterprise Travel wasted no time shooting this down in a Facebook post.

“Asking a travel advisor for assistance with cancelled WestJet flights if you didn’t book with them is not cool,” Hansen Davey wrote. “Also, we can’t touch files that we didn’t book. Sorry.”

Calls for change 

Leila Lavaee of Travel Design By Leila Lavaee didn’t have any clients caught up in the mess, but she said the case highlights the travel industry’s shortcomings.

She asks why there isn’t a standardized approach for handling airline strikes, and plans for dealing with such emergencies.

“I think every operation needs a backup plan in case things don’t work,” Lavaee told PAX. “This doesn’t seem to exist in the travel industry or at airlines.”

Leila Lavaee of Travel Design By Leila Lavaee. (Supplied)

She’s calling on ACTA and the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) to do more in protecting passengers and advocating for travel advisors.

Above all, Lavaee was disappointed to see advisors “left in the dark” with no support.

“We are the pillars of this industry,” she said. “It seems like airlines are constantly cutting down commissions and minimizing the role and impact of the advisor.”  


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