The flight disruptions that crippled Sunwing’s ability to fly customers home in a timely manner over the holiday period is nothing short of a business and PR disaster.
That is the focus of a CBC News report published Thursday (Jan. 19) in which aviation experts analyze the consequences of the situation and future of Sunwing as the company picks up the pieces of a turbulent holiday season and continues to face blowback from consumers and travel advisors.
Sunwing says it has received upwards of 7,000 direct complaints since the holidays, which doesn’t bode well for its reputation and ability to retain loyal customers, experts say.
"Its overambitious holiday schedule creating a lot of animosity, and the loss of brand value in the Canadian marketplace due to its actions, will end up having them pay a price," John Gradek, an aviation expert and a lecturer in the aviation management program at McGill University, recently told CBC.
"There's no way Sunwing can escape some loss of market share and value."
Biting off more than one can crew
Amid of wave of cancelled weddings and crushed vacations, Sunwing – and other airlines, to be fair – is in the hot seat as passengers and travel pros demand answers that explain the operational failures that climaxed during Christmas when a snowstorm slammed into some parts of Canada.
Many who travelled over the holidays were forced to hunker down for several days in destinations, shuffling from hotels to airports and back, waiting for up to 12 hours (or more) a day for updates on when their flights home would take place.
Some Sunwing customers were repatriated in creative ways – during the holiday rush, a group of Quebecers, after three extra days in the Dominican Republic, were flown home on a jet owned by the New England Patriots football team.
Aircraft and pilot availability appear to be at the centre of Sunwing’s operational woes.
As Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, told MPs at House transport hearing last week, the tour operator struggled after its request to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers for winter was denied.
The reason why Sunwing’s request wasn’t approved (after being green lit for several years) isn’t entirely clear, but the consequences have been disastrous.
Near the end of December, Sunwing announced a suspension of all flights in Saskatchewan until (and including) Feb. 3, 2022 as it repositioned aircraft. The company has since cut half of its flights from Saskatoon and almost all seasonal flights from Regina.
"[Sunwing] promised a lot more than they could. It seems Saskatchewan wasn't profitable for Sunwing," Gradek told CBC.
Schedules in Atlantic Canada have also been thinned out as select Sunwing routes out of Fredericton, Moncton and Halifax have also been removed. The winter schedule for Northern Ontario, as of Feb. 1, is cancelled. completely.
Not only have these decisions resulted in a storm of (rightfully) angry travellers – many of whom have shared their grievances with mainstream media outlets – it has also sparked backlash within Canada’s travel trade community as agents process cancellations without compensation.
As PAX reported earlier this month, travel advisors in Saskatchewan, for one, are facing disappointed clients, mounting paperwork and thousands of dollars in recalled income (as commissions aren’t being protected) during one of the busiest months of the year.
And trade advocacy groups aren’t letting it slide either.
Last week, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) spoke out against Sunwing’s handling of the cancellations in Saskatchewan and elsewhere.
“When a decision to cancel a travel program is made, travel agent commission should be part of the decision-making process, and commission must be protected,” ACTA said in a release on Jan. 12.
In a statement on Jan. 5, Stephen Hunter, CEO of Sunwing Travel Group, alongside Len Corrado, jointly apologized for “letting our customers down” during the busy Christmas period.
That apology, however, did not mention Canadian travel advisors who, too, were impacted by the shutdown as they worked through the holidays to find solutions for their clients.
The Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) has taken a more direct tone with Sunwing.
The grassroots group, in a statement to PAX on Jan. 5, said “an apology is not enough.”
“To say ACITA is disappointed with these most recent cancellations is an understatement,” ACITA said. “Independent advisors have been working so hard to rebound after two long years of cancellations, and to now have to cancel and process refunds yet again, all while working without compensation, is unacceptable.”
Commission recalls didn’t go unnoticed at last week’s Transport hearing.
Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola told the House committee how she had heard that Sunwing isn’t paying commission to travel advisors who are impacted by the suspensions – “even though they did their job correctly.”
“Is this a policy that is common in your company? For you to not pay the companies and agencies that are selling your trips?” Vignola asked.
Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations for Sunwing, responded, saying that it’s a “common practice” within the industry to only pay commission on completed trips.
Dawson, appearing virtually, said he sympathized with the trade, noting that Sunwing has incentives to reward agents and is looking at ways to make them whole so agents will work with the tour operator again.
Who’s to blame?
Meanwhile, pollsters are taking a closer look at the holiday travel snarls to determine just how Canadians feel about how the situation was handled.
Yesterday, the Angus Reid Institute released a new study that surveyed 1,611 Canadians and the results say most are likely to blame the weather (70%) as the airlines and rail companies (68%) for the cancellations and delays that ruined Christmas.
Just one-in-three (33%) of respondents point the finger at the federal government and a similar number (30%) blame travellers for putting themselves in the situation.
The data also indicates a strong desire from Canadians for more government regulation (which is coming, apparently) to protect consumers from cancellations, but also a mixed belief that the regulations already in place will have much effect.
The complaints department at the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is also a mess as the agency faces a ridiculous backlog of some 33,000 cases of passengers seeking compensation for interrupted travel.
Sunwing can process its own pile of complaints, but those passengers will eventually be passed off to the CTA, Gradek said.
Calgary-based independent aviation industry analyst Rick Erickson added his voice to CBC’s story, expressing disbelief over Sunwing’s decisions in recent weeks.
"Sunwing has been profitable in the Saskatchewan market for a number of years and just to abruptly cancel services there out of the blue is out of rationale," Erickson said.
Even as Sunwing faces a potential acquisition by WestJet, the carrier’s future is “uncertain,” he told CBC.
Canada’s new roster of low-cost carriers can potentially fill some of the gaps that Sunwing (and other airlines, like Air Canada) have left behind in some markets – like Saskatchewan – but saving reputations and, most importantly, consumer and agent loyalty will be an uphill battle.
“It would be a shame to lose Sunwing," Gradek told CBC. "Unless something [dramatically changes] Sunwing's behaviour and its way of doing business, the sun may set on Sunwing."