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JetsGo! closure has minimal impact on Whistler

But rising flight costs a concern for the resort

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At midnight on Thursday, March 10, Jetsgo Corporation quietly pulled the plug on its operations, stranding more than 17,000 passengers without warning. The news broke on Friday morning as the company quietly relocated its entire fleet to Quebec, where laws will protect the 29 planes from creditors as the company filed for bankruptcy protection. The entire staff of 1,350 employees has been laid off.

For Whistler, the impact so far has been minimal. According to Jenny Revesz of Personal Travel Management, only five local customers were affected by the collapse of Jetsgo, and none of them were stranded on a round trip.

"When the sales were on with Jetsgo, Westjet was matching the sale so I could… put customers on Westjet most of the time," she said. "We always try to find the lowest rate, but if the times and the prices are the same we would go with Westjet or Air Canada, which have been around for a long time."

Similarly, some hotels report little to no impact in room cancellations in the fallout.

"We may have had one cancellation," said Anita McGee, general manager of the Holiday Inn.

The Coast Whistler Hotel had no cancellations.

The biggest impact for Whistler residents and visitors is expected to be rising airline prices. Up until March 11 a round-trip ticket from Vancouver to Toronto was $470 on Westjet and Jetsgo. The same ticket now retails for $604.

The airline industry, which is down to three carriers in Canada, acknowledged the rise in prices but said they were likely temporary. Prices are generally higher during the spring break period when there is a greater demand for seats, and the demise of Jetsgo has further increased that demand.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail discovered that ticket prices have increased by 16 per cent to 50 per cent, depending how far out you book.

"The increase is supposed to be temporary, but I don’t think we’ll see the same kinds of deals we’ve seen in the past," said Revesz.

The local Thomas Cooke Travel agency had just three people booked with Jetsgo and none of them were stranded.

"What happened with us is that their (Jetsgo’s) website had a bit of a virus for us in the office recently so we couldn’t physically pull up their site and book with them, so we’re pretty much in the clear," said manager Tahnee Harrop.

The agency also hasn’t seen an influx of customers that might have been stranded in Whistler by the bankruptcy. "We expected some people to come through the door trying to get home, but we haven’t had anybody," she said.

Michelle Comeau Thompson, director of communications for Tourism Whistler, said that Tourism Whistler does not have any kind of working partnership with Jetsgo, but expects that a few local hotels probably offered package deals with the airline.

The short-term impact on the resort is unknown, but Comeau Thompson said the loss of an airline and rising prices will have an effect.

"We do get a significant visitation from eastern Canada in the spring ski season. It’s hard to say what the impact will be this year with everything that’s going on, but there were certainly a lot of people taking advantage of the amazing fares (Jetsgo) was offering," she said. "From our perspective, the more air traffic to Vancouver International Airport, the more accessible it is, the better it is for the resort and the tourism industry as well."

A discount carrier that offered seats for as low as $1 in recent promotions, Jetsgo first took to the skies in June of 2002, seven months after the collapse of Canada 3000. From August 2004 to March of 2005 the airline lost an estimated $55 million.

The losses were blamed on a combination of low fares, domestic competition, rising fuel and fleet maintenance costs, high terminal fees, and other factors such as the 2003 SARS outbreak which reduced Canadian travel to destinations like Vancouver and Toronto.

The Consumers’ Association of Canada is calling for the federal government to investigate Jetsgo, as well as to increase regulation of the airline industry to prevent similar instances in the future. On March 14 the CAC also called for the resignation of federal Transport Minister Jean Lapierre for his "cavalier" response to the Jetsgo situation.

"We find the Minister’s cavalier attitude and his callousness towards the plight of Canadian consumers appalling," said CAC vice president Mel Fruitman. "We also want to know why Lapierre and his spokespeople are refusing to answer any more questions about what he knew about the discount airline’s financial troubles.

"In addition the government should immediately start a process which will result in the establishment of appropriate mechanisms to protect consumers from financial loss and other duress, before they allow any other new airlines to fly in Canada."

Michel Leblanc, the owner of Jetsgo, has had seven airline bankruptcies in the last 20 years. Before Jetsgo he was a partner in Royal Aviation, which merged with Canada 3000 in 2001. Canada 3000 later sued him, alleging that he provided his partners with inaccurate financial information. The allegations were never proven in court, and Canada 3000 filed for bankruptcy in November of 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.