JUST BUY THE DAMN INSURANCE Do not help passengers to beat the system

JUST BUY THE DAMN INSURANCE Do not help passengers to beat the system

After a recent barrage of seemingly unending WTF! airline stories which included passengers being subjected to physical violence and belligerent behaviour(nose breaking, being hit with a stroller) false threats (jail for the parents and loss of their kids to the authorities), discomfort (squeezed between two obese seatmates),being sent to the wrong destination (San Francisco instead of Paris), ruined birthday celebrations (see today's episode) and assorted punch ups between passengers and near misses between passengers and flight attendants, do we - at last - have a really good ‘nice guy’ airline story. Well, don’t hold your breath.

The premise is simple. A family of four buys a holiday package from a tour operator. Before they are to travel the mother discovers she is pregnant and wants to cancel or switch destinations because their chosen destination has a Zika warning and, as we all know, Zika can be dangerous to pregnant women. Nasty tour operator says no. Kindly airline hears of their plight and offers them a family trip to a non-Zika destination.

Conclusion: Happy family. Bad guy tour operator. Good guy airline.

Right?

Wrong!

Let’s look a little more closely:

Wilfredo and Leslie Aburto, their son (age undisclosed but travelling as an adult) and a 17 month old son had purchased a trip to Cuba from Sunwing. The cost of the trip was approximately $6,000.

Now, here is the most important fact in this issue - the Aburtos chose not to purchase trip insurance.

Consequently, as a direct result of that choice, their Sunwing holiday was non-refundable and non-transferrable. It's all there in not-so-small-print when you buy your package.

However, in these days of never ending news cycles, the Aburtos on being told "No" went to the media and the story was picked up by CTV Calgary and others and little superfluous personal details were noted: “Their 17-month-old son was born with Down syndrome” and “It had been three years since the family of four were able to travel together and they were excited.” (The family of four had been a family of three for all but 17 months of those four years – but who’s counting.)

The story drew the attention of Air Canada officials who were perhaps smarting from the J.D. Power’s airline rankings released earlier in the week showing Air Canada dead last among North American airlines when it comes to passenger satisfaction. (In fairness – not a ranking I agree with).

Good guys that they are, Air Canada reached out.

“It just tugged at my heartstrings, said spokesperson Mark Dantu, “I just thought we would see what we could do for them.”

Dantu called the Aburtos, and reportedly Wilfredo said, Dantu had, “seen us in the news and he was very sad to see - just the outcome and - the struggle that our family was going through just to be able to go on a family getaway.”

“He proceeded to offer us a family getaway.”

Long story short – the parents and 17-month old are going to Southern California and Disneyland,” and the other son is going to Cuba as planned.

So, what did we learn readers?

That Sunwing are greedy-bad-guys and Air Canada are warm-hearted-customer-service-oriented good guys.

Actually, we did not learn that at all– but we did pick up some valuable lessons for ourselves and our clients.

• Buy travel insurance.

• If you don’t and you find you have to change your plans or cancel – and your airline or tour operator says no – take your story to the media who can be trusted to skip the essential facts, while making a compelling enough story to ‘tug someone’s heartstrings’, suggest the apparent bad guy and dangle some good PR in front of a potential good guy. That certainly gives a story legs … who can resist!

• The truth is that a company who provides travel protection and then subsequently sticks to its policies and doesn’t ‘cheat’ other clients by letting one off the hook when things go wrong, is to be respected and not reviled.

• That an airline who also offers travel protection and would more than likely have made the same decision as to refunds/changes, used this situation to gain a PR advantage is appalling.

“When we decided to come forward with this, the whole intention was to try to get Sunwing to do the right thing,” said Aburto. “We were just looking to postpone our vacation.”

Well, Mr. Aburto, Sunwing DID do the right thing. By not buying travel insurance – you did not. You are not victims here. These were circumstances of your own making.

And as for Air Canada, “It just tugged at my heartstrings.” Yeah, right.

Possibly the best summation came from passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs, usually the bête noire of airlines and tour operators, “This is a very cheap way, from an airline’s perspective, to improve your image. You give free tickets to one family while you still keep shortchanging everybody else.”

Lukacs said Sunwing Vacations did nothing wrong in its handling of the Aburtos’ case but the travel company will end up losing when it comes to public perception.

It shouldn’t. And in fact, the posted comments we read were overwhelmingly in favour of Sunwing – and many chided Air Canada for trying to use the situation to garner good press, and the Aburtos because, as one person noted rather nastily, “you ran to the media and whined even though you were too cheap or lazy to purchase travel insurance.”

This incident really has three components and they're worth repeating:

First, it should be seen as a lesson to travellers to buy insurance – and shouldn’t everyone know that by now?

Second, Sunwing should be viewed as doing the right thing. In declining to waive its policy it stood up for all its customers who buy insurance. If it did not do so what is the point of selling insurance?

Third, looking for a good publicity at the expense of a competitor who is simply following rules is a lousy idea. Air Canada really needs to rethink such reckless ‘solutions’ before it releases a Pandora’s Box of insurance crises. They have taught travellers that they don’t need insurance – just a good story. Why should anyone now buy protection when travelling on Air Canada – or any other airline or tour operator, for that matter. If something goes wrong, and you need to cancel or switch your flight, doesn’t matter whether or not you’re booked with Air Canada - just call Mark Dantu and tug at his heartstrings.

This manoeuvre had as much thought behind it as a Trumpian tweet. Let's hope smarter heads at AC prevail in future.

We’ll give the last word to Andrew Dawson, chief operating officer at Sunwing, who told us, “whether it’s one of the wide range of policies available from their Travel Agent, or Sunwing’s own Worry Free plans, we continue to stress the importance and value for customers to protect their investment in a vacation against the unexpected”.

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