‘Time for change’: Airline chaos irks area travel agent, clients

‘I am embarrassed, frustrated and infuriated by the airline industry and their lack of accountability. The system is broken,’ said owner of local travel agency

For more than 12 years Cheryl Kelly-Guest has owned Cruise Holidays, a travel agency located in Bradford West Gwillimbury, but she’s never seen anything like the chaos unfolding with airlines this holiday season.

Canadians across the country have experienced flight cancellations and delays that have left them stranded and, in many cases, their luggage lost. Yet, the airlines have gone unscathed when it comes to the accumulating expenses for travellers and agencies.

“I am embarrassed, frustrated and infuriated by the airline industry and their lack of accountability,” said Kelly-Guest.

With 2020 and 2021 leaving a lasting impact on the economy due to the pandemic, the travel industry was in crisis, but things were beginning to look up in 2022 and into 2023.

“We fought through global cancellations, consumer refunds/travel vouchers, commission recalls, COVID-19 protocols, COVID-19 entry requirements (by country) and most importantly regaining consumer trust,” Kelly-Guest explained. “Fast forward to 2022, we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.”

That was until the airline industry was dealt a blow with flight cancellations and delays, lost baggage, data breaches, pilot strikes, staff shortages and equipment malfunctions.

“Why should we have to book flights two days in advance to ensure that our clients can make a cruise?” asked Kelly-Guest. “It is time for change. The current system is broken. Airlines need to be held accountable.”

Kelly-Guest points out that when clients make a reservation for a service, they pay in full, in advance, and expect to receive the service they paid for as per the mutually agreed upon reservation. 

“It is a binding contract between the passenger and the tour operator/airline,” she said. “Our clients arrange their flights and vacations according to the airline’s published dates and times. The expectation is that these dates and times should be met. Period.”

This year, Kelly-Guest said, while airline executives were enjoying their holidays with family and friends, she and her agents were fielding frantic calls from travelling and “in-destination” passengers. 

One of those passengers was Tina Kellett.

Kellett and her family were supposed to leave for Punta Cana on Christmas Day, but the flight was delayed to Dec. 26 and then again to Dec. 27.

“We’d all signed up for notifications on our phones, seven of us went and only two of us were getting notifications and the notifications weren’t right, one would get one thing and one would get another,” said Kellett.

While Kellett and her family were dealing with this, Kelly-Guest wasn’t notified by the airlines about any of the issues.

“She had no notifications that our flights had changed, she got no notifications about the baggage issues,” said Kellett. “She should have been told that this was happening.”

Knowing the baggage issues could cause a problem as well, on Dec. 26, Kellett and her family bought small bags to re-pack everything so that they would only bring carry-ons on the flight.

“We had checked in the night before the flight and Sunwing confirmed with me we’d just have to show our boarding passes, but that didn’t happen and we had to redo all of our boarding passes,” Kellet explained.

“When we finally got through, the flight was delayed again for two more hours, but because of the baggage issues we had to wait on the plane another hour. When we finally got there, we sat on our bus for an hour waiting for people who weren’t on the flight, but the Sunwing guy there didn’t check anything.”

When they got to the resort, the Sunwing rep wasn’t there and the employee who checked in Kellett and her family was confused as to why they were two days late.

“There was no communication to them from Sunwing, so we had to wait for them to change rooms around and weren’t checked in until 1 a.m.”

Coming home, the flight was delayed once again for two hours, and once home, Kellett began looking to get reimbursed for the issues.

“The links are saying that reimbursements after Dec. 18 aren’t being processed at this time,” said Kellett. “Airlines need to be accountable, weather is weather, but the things that happened to us shouldn’t have happened.”

Knowing the affects weather can have on travel, and with the snowstorm that hit Canada before the holidays, Kelly-Guest said the airlines are taking the opportunity to use it as a scapegoat.

“Please, stop using the weather as an excuse… we live in Canada, snow falls every winter,” she stated. “While I understand and agree that weather can affect flight times, what we saw this holiday season is a beacon of failed (or lack of) policies and procedures.”

Gábor Lukács, President of advocacy organization Air Passenger Rights, agrees with Kelly-Guest that what has taken place is unacceptable.

“Passengers have rights under Canadian and international laws, which can be used if seeking recourse.” He added they should take their complaints to a small claims court in their province.

Lukács said normally it’s the government’s job to hold the airline industry accountable, but there has been “no meaningful enforcement.”

The government provided $11 million to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) through its 2022 budget to give them additional resources to address the backlog of complaints and plan to continue to work with them to provide the necessary resources to avoid these mishaps.

“We understand how frustrating these delays and cancellations have been for travellers this holiday season,” said Valérie Glazer, a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Transport.

“What many travellers have experienced is completely unacceptable. Canadians rightly expect their airlines to keep them informed and to manage disruptions accordingly. Passengers also have rights, and they must be respected.”

As of Sept. 8, new regulations are in effect under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations. They apply to flights that are cancelled or delayed for reasons beyond the air carrier’s control, such as major weather events or pandemics. Canadians can file a complaint, including baggage complaints, with the CTA.

“Our government will continue to ensure that these rights are protected,” said Glazer. “Transport Canada and our office have been in close contact with airlines.”

Having countless clients who have been put through the mayhem of the holiday airline fiasco, Kelly-Guest said it’s time for a change.

“I am pleading with all levels of government to hold these airlines and tour operators accountable. I want our government to step in and review the entire Canadian Airline Industry and publicly release their findings,” said Kelly-Guest. “Action is required now. This issue has been going on far too long.”

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