The needs of Canadian travel advisors are absolutely being considered in Ottawa’s bailout negotiations with airlines, suggested Transport Minister Omar Alghabra at a Transport Committee meeting on Thursday (Feb. 18).
Alghabra’s remarks came in response to a question posed by MP Stephanie Kusie, who was grilling the Minister for an update on Ottawa’s support for Canada’s ailing aviation sector.
Speaking with a sense of urgency, MP Kusie, who has long voiced her support for travel agents amid the COVID-19 pandemic, asked the Transport Minister if he would ensure that airlines are “not allowed to claw back travel agent’s commissions” as a result of whatever bailout package is being discussed.
The Transport Minister’s response?
“The aspect of independent travel agent refunds, or commissions, are part of the discussions as we speak,” Minister Alghabra said.
MP Alghabra's use of the phrase "independent travel agents," arguably, may have meant all travel agents (independent or not), although PAX is looking to seek clarity on the answer.
Canada’s Transport Minister had previously stated, at a media briefing on Jan. 29, that travel agent compensation, in general, was on his radar as part of bailout negotiations with the airline industry.
But Alghabra's statement on Thursday, as remarks recorded into record, sheds important light on the Liberal government’s awareness of, and consideration for, travel agent communities, which will face upwards of $200 million dollars in commission recalls if airlines are forced to refund customers in exchange for federal aid.
"This. Just. Happened."
Advocates celebrated the moment on social media as Transport Canada’s acknowledgment of travel agents (be it under the direction of former Minister Marc Garneau or Omar Alghabra) has, so far, been painstakingly vague.
“This. Just. Happened!” wrote the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) on their public Facebook page yesterday, sharing a video clip of the exchange between MP Kusie and Minister Alghabra.
While protections for travel agents have yet to be confirmed, Committee Chair MP Vance Badawey of Niagara Centre, who has pressed airlines on recall matters before, said he “really appreciated” Minister Alghabra addressing the issue on Thursday.
“There’s no doubt that those are very sensitive issues, not only for us as broader issues for the country, but also for individual jurisdictions in individual ridings,” MP Badawey said.
“I truly appreciate the attention you’ve given to that. We’re hoping for a good outcome for both the customers with refunds, as well as the travel agents with clawbacks.”
In a statement to PAX, ACITA, which has been intensely lobbying politicians since last summer, said they appreciated the issue being raised, as well as MP Badawey's ongoing support.
"With Vance Badawey being Liberal, this means so much, to know the current government is looking out for the best interests of our small sector," ACITA's Nancy Wilson wrote in an email.
Is there plan coming? Yes or no?
Reports of Ottawa developing a financial assistance package for Canada’s aviation sector have been swirling since October 2020.
Few details about the plan have been shared. Although, according to a Feb. 15 report in the Globe and Mail, the negotiations are apparently close to being finalized.
Participants in the talks have signed non-disclosure agreements as Finance Department officials review the financial records of airlines both big and small, the Globe reported.
Refunding customers for cancelled travel, too, will apparently cost “billions of dollars,” an unnamed source told the Globe.
MP Kusie, also on Thursday, pressed Minister Alghabra for an update on the status of the bailout.
Like many in aviation, travel and tourism industries, the MP for Calgary Midnapore appeared to lose her patience over the government’s lack of action.
Minister Alghabra began to explain that Canada’s airline sector is “incredibly important” for Canada’s economy, noting how it’s been disproportionally impacted, until MP Kusie, abruptly, cut him off.
“Thank you Minister. We don’t have a lot of time,” she interjected. “Can the airline sector expect a plan imminently, that they have been asking for, for a year? Yes or no, please.”
To that, Minister Alghabra said he wants to see a deal “as quickly as possible.”
However: “There are other parties at the table,” he said. “We are negotiating a quick order…I hope that it happens in short order, but there are other players here at the table, and we hope we can reach an agreement soon.”
Minister Alghabra wasn’t able to provide a specific date for when Ottawa’s federal support for aviation would be announced.
Advocacy heats up
Meanwhile, advocacy efforts for commission protections continue to heat up within trade circles.
ACITA, which has met with more than 160 politicians over Zoom since June 2020 to educate them about the needs of travel agents amid the pandemic, met with its first Canadian senator, Senator Robert Black, this week, to address the issue of commission recalls.
ACITA’s petition that called on the Minister of Transport to ensure that whatever bailout package is being prepared is conditional upon the protection of agent commissions was also read into record in the House of Commons on Feb 4.
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) also reported this week that it has met with the Ministry of Finance to determine a framework for consumers, travel agents and airlines in establishing aid for the airline sector.
“Our talks have moved on from asking that travel agents and travel agencies be protected from commission recalls, to how to achieve that in whatever aid package is arrived at,” said Wendy Paradis, President of ACTA, in a statement on Feb. 18.
“We are very encouraged by this and it is becoming clear that negotiations are at a critical stage and that decisions are expected very soon.”
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today!