The pandemic has decimated the travel industry, grinding it to a halt since March of this year. But the idea of an upcoming bailout for airlines has travel agents across the country nervous about how it could affect them.
“If they do that and do a recall of commission to the travel agent, then that’s going to be detrimental to the travel industry,” says Flemming Friisdahl, president and founder of The Travel Agent Next Door.
Friisdahl, who represents hundreds of independent employees across the country, says as companies issue refunds, a trickle-down effect will see travel agents pay for it unless protection is put in place. Friisdahl, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, says his agents have had thousands of dollars called back by companies.
“I’ve had $300,000 already that I’ve had to pay back. … I would have to go to someone who got paid commission back in February, and ask them for it back.”
“The problem is they’ve already spent it on rent, groceries,” Friisdahl says. “You would never expect they want it back.”
It’s the same for the whole industry.
“As a single mom, this was my business. This was it,” says Tracy Turberfield, who relies solely on 100 per cent commission, with no base salary. “My business disintegrated before my eyes.”
The luxury travel associate says getting refunds is bittersweet. “I was thrilled for the clients. I want my clients to get their money back,” she says.
But that also means agents have to give up the commission they earned — and sometimes working around the clock to get customers their refunds over the past few months.
“The travel agents are having their pay taken back for work they’ve already done,” Turberfield says.
“Yes, the clients didn’t travel, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t work,” she said. “When the cancellations started to pour in, we spent many hours advocating for our clients and processing paperwork for our clients.”
Ottawa says any bailout for airlines will be contingent on the companies issuing refunds for those cancelled trips. In Parliament on Sunday, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the government is working on a solution, but needs airlines to take action.
“Before we spend one penny of taxpayer money on airlines, we will ensure Canadians get their refunds,” he said. “We will ensure Canadians and regional communities retain air connections to the rest of Canada.”
“We are ready to establish a process with major airlines regarding financial assistance, which could include loans and potentially other support to secure important results for Canadians,” he added.
But the problem is how the contracts are written for travel agents now. Agencies and representatives will be affected if that happens.
“Right now, the way the policies are is that once there is a refund, they claw back our commission,” says Judith Coates of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors. She, like all agents, wants refunds for clients but says their fear is that a bailout without stipulations in place would cripple them.
“We want them to be able to include some kind of stipulation that travel agents get their commissions protected,” she says.
Coates helped found the association after independent travel advisors realized they weren’t represented during a trying time for the industry. She says more than 150 agencies have already shut their doors.
Companies like WestJet say they are sympathetic to the situation.
“We urge the federal government to take action to address these issues and are advocating not only for our airline, but the entire travel supply chain,” WestJet says in a statement. “This is to ensure our critical industry can help lead Canada’s economic recovery.
Professionals like Turberfield say that if something isn’t done to protect everyone involved, it could affect the whole industry.
“We’re an ecosystem,” Turberfield says. “Everybody in that ecosystem — the airlines, the tour operators, the destinations and the travel specialists — we all need to be supported.”
“I want to still be here when this is all over. I want to be able to send my clients to the Caribbean and continue working in the industry,” she says.