Horror stories of flights delays, cancellations and lost baggage continue to make headlines as the travel industry, which saw significant restrictions related to COVID-19 for two years, tries to recover amid intense demand for travel around the world, and experts are stressing to travellers that fixing these issues is certainly not as easy as a flip of a switch.
“The good news is that travel is back, the bad news is that travel is back after a two-year hiatus from the pandemic,” David Harris, executive chairman of Ensemble Travel Group, a consortium of travel advisors in the U.S. and Canada, told Yahoo Canada. “It's not a case of simply being able to flip a switch and having everything get back.”
Harris stressed that a core part of these challenges is a labour shortage across all travel-related industries.
What happened over the past two years in our industry is that the workforce was decimated and that's on multiple verticals, whether it was airlines, flight attendants, pilots, maintenance mechanics, airport ground handlers, hoteliers, travel agencies and advisors, all of these areas have been dramatically impacted, and all of that is playing a significant role in the labour shortage,” he said. “It's creating these challenges for the industry…and what we're seeing is the impact to consumers.David Harris, Executive Chairman of Ensemble Travel Group
With such a significant impact to travellers, Harris identified concerns around consumer confidence impacting recovery, particularly related to these challenges not being effectively communicated to the public.
“That's what I have grave concerns about because we know that in the absence of consumer confidence, a full recovery, or even a decent recovery for us, is definitely imperilled,” Harris warned. “We need the industry to be able to communicate this better to consumers, communicate what the challenges are, what's being done, and what the timeline is to recovery.”
“Only once that is successfully done,...hopefully consumers will better understand what the nature of the challenges are, and not instead [have] some kind of knee-jerk reaction, like, ‘well, I'm never going to travel again,’ or ‘I'll wait a year or two before we even think about traveling once again.’”
Allison Wallace, Vice President of Corporate Communications and CSR for Flight Centre Travel Group (Americas), identified that it’s the uncertainty for travellers that is causing issues related to their confidence in the travel industry.
“I would say that it's really the uncertainty that's causing the most angst for them,” Wallace told Yahoo Canada. “For example, when the message came out from Air Canada, that they were cutting their schedule, I think the biggest concern we were hearing was, ‘well is my flight going to be cancelled?’”
“The people that are travelling in the next several weeks…don't know whether their flight’s going to be affected and the feeling that we're getting is that people would rather know now so they know what their options are, versus finding out the day of, or a few days before.”
Air Canada is making the correct decision to reduce flight schedule
Recently, Air Canada sent a letter to its customers stating that the airline will be reducing its flight schedule throughout the summer in an effort to mitigate these flight delays, cancellations and airport chaos.
"This surge in travel has created unprecedented and unforeseen strains on all aspects of the global aviation system," the message from Air Canada reads. "Around the world, there are recurring incidents of flight delays and airport congestion, resulting from a complex array of persistent factors impacting airlines and our partners in the aviation ecosystem."
“To bring about the level of operational stability we need, with reluctance, we are now making meaningful reductions to our schedule in July and August in order to reduce passenger volumes and flows to a level we believe the air transport system can accommodate."
From David Harris’ perspective, this was the right approach for the airline to take at this time.
“It is 100 per cent the correct thing to be doing, as painful as it is on the commerce side, on the airline side, on the industry side, as it is on the consumer side,” he said. “The situation is only further exacerbated if they cannot deliver appropriate standards that ensure consumer experience is appropriate for what they've paid, and what they deserve.”
“They're entering into a contract to travel. They don't deserve to have cancelled [flights], delays, baggage challenges, nobody deserves that and the airlines, they're not proud of that.”
Allison Wallace calls these multilayered complications a “perfect storm” for travellers this summer.
“What we're seeing now is that this uncertainty has come in and more people are seeing these horrific stories about people being stranded or not getting bags, or whatever the situation is, because of the short staffing and the massive demand, and everything's kind of come together in this perfect storm of challenges,” Wallace said.
“Whenever there's uncertainty is when we see people holding off on actually booking their travel plans.”
Travel issues could last for the rest of the year, expert says
One of the major outstanding questions for many travellers is, how long are these delays, cancellations and general travel challenges going to last?
As David Harris highlights, there’s no “manual” dictating how everything can be fixed, or how long it will take to do so, given that everyone is trying to work through uncharted territory, which is the pandemic.
If I were to label a timeframe that I think is reasonable for things to get back to a more normal standard, there is a bit of a window here, on the lean side I would say it's in the range of two to three months, and I think more appropriately, it's likely in the four to six-month period.David Harris, Executive Chairman of Ensemble Travel Group
“It is my absolute expectation that by the new year that things will be much closer if not back to its former self, in terms of how things are functioning, in terms of customer satisfaction.”
While travellers are navigating this uncertainty, Harris added that it has amplified the role of travel advisors, a human touch to help consumers navigate their end of this uncharted territory of issues.
“I would be remiss to not reference the importance of the travel advisor community and how they have advocated for consumers with little or no compensation for the last two plus years now,...assisting consumers through the maze of challenges,” he said. “I am very confident that advisors now fulfill an extremely important role, and not that they haven't done the past, but I think it's better understood today, as opposed to online travel agencies.”
Allison Wallace stressed that travel is cyclical and we’re now in the summer peak. She added that in Canada, there was an increase in travel being booked when restrictions to fly and COVID-19 measures at airports were loosened earlier this year, but now Canadians are more so looking to book their travel for the fall and winter months.
“What we're going to see is…[whether people] feel confident that these issues will be sorted so they can book their winter getaway,” she said. “There's no question that there's just massive pent up demand,...the hassles are certainly frustrating people and may get people to delay but at this point, people want to go and travel, they feel like they've earned it.”
“It will be really important for the industry to be able to meet the demand.”
Tips for flying during extensive delays, issues
For Canadians booking travel who may be concerned about how to navigate any continued flight delays and cancellations, Allison Wallace’s recommendation is to stick to bigger airports, give yourself a longer period of time between connecting flights, and download the airline’s mobile application to get updates on your flight as quickly as possible.
“The majority of the cancelled flights that we're seeing, right now, are the small, regional airports, so like London, Ontario, for example, because the major airports are where they're going to try to keep those flights going,” Wallace explained.
If you have a connection, two hours is not enough, particularly if you have to change terminals, or go through customs, you need minimum four hours.Allison Wallace, Vice President of Corporate Communications and CSR for Flight Centre Travel Group (Americas)
“I think people always go price-first and the cheapest tickets are going to have the most restrictions. So make sure that you pay up a little bit to have your seats selected, where you can change with no penalty or cancel and get a refund, or into a credit.”