Kelly Klassen was driving to central Alberta with her family to visit her brother for the holidays when the emails started filling her inbox.
The travel agent from Rosthern, Sask., says she had dozens of bookings affected by Sunwing’s decision last week to cancel service to Regina and Saskatoon for a month.
The airline announced on Dec. 29 that it was immediately cancelling its operations through Feb. 3 at Saskatchewan’s two largest airports due to extenuating circumstances.
“I literally was sick,” Klassen said in an interview. “I can’t keep up. I’m one person. I can’t rebook one month worth of travel in one day.”
Klassen, a travel agent for 12 years, said she was able to rebook a 100-person corporate group and another larger group. But she had 49 individual bookings for the month.
She’s one of many travel agents in Saskatchewan who could lose thousands of dollars after they were told the airline won’t protect their commissions on cancelled flights.
Travel agents said there are typically daily flights to southern destinations in Mexico and Cuba from Regina and Saskatoon in the winter — and many were almost sold out.
Alison Berk, who works as a travel agent in Humboldt, Sask., said she was already dealing with clients who were stuck in Cuba and Mazatlan, Mexico, when she received an email about Sunwing cancelling all of its January flights.
“It hasn’t been a good time,” she said, noting she has been a travel agent for three years.
“It started with COVID and now this.”
Berk said many Saskatchewan residents who have been looking forward to escaping the cold for a sunny vacation have been left disappointed by the Sunwing decision.
“We all care about our clients so much. I was genuinely sad that I had to let them know that their flights or their vacations were ruined because of this,” she said.
“Then to find out all of our hard work that we put in could potentially be for nothing because they said they are not protecting our commissions … we did our work, our job to get the clients to (Sunwing) and then they didn’t keep their end of the bargain.
“We’re the ones who are suffering because we might not get paid.”
Sunwing said in a statement Wednesday that all customers with cancelled southbound departures will receive a full refund and that it would follow normal procedures with respect to travel agent commissions.
“We sincerely apologize to our valued travel advisers in Saskatoon and Regina — who are instrumental in advising our mutual customers — for the inconvenience and disruption,” it said.
“Please know that the decision to temporarily halt our operations from both airports was not made lightly but out of necessity due to several factors that prevented us from delivering the standards of service our Saskatchewan customers expect from Sunwing.”
Berk said she had 16 families booked on January flights and will be out thousands of dollars, but some of her colleagues could lose even more.
One travel agent, added Klassen, had planned a 70-person wedding in Mexico next week.
“The whole thing just fell apart,” she said. “She lost tens of thousands of dollars. It makes you sick, because she’s worked on this for a year. It’s gut-wrenching when they can do that with no regard for us.”
Klassen said she’s also worried about what will happen to the flights booked for the rest of the winter.
“I have 57 individual bookings for February and March, plus eight groups — weddings included,” she said, noting one of those flights is a personal trip for her family during the February break.
Both agents work for Travello Travel Group, which they say is also fighting for their commissions. No one from the agency returned a request for comment.
Klassen said she wondered why Sunwing only shut down flights in Saskatchewan, when it could have cancelled some of its less-popular routes across the country.
“Sunwing will have lost the trust of Saskatchewan people moving forward,” Klassen said.
“I know so many people who are saying, ‘I will never fly Sunwing again.’”
The Toronto-based airline said it would finalize plans for both airports for February and March in the coming days and it hopes to regain the trust of its Saskatchewan customers with the help of the travel agents.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.
Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press