Monday, May 26, 2008

Obligatory Post Vacation Air Canada Rant

If you've flown Air Canada recently, skip this post, as doubtless you have experienced the joys of the world's worst international carrier first hand.

The majority of my previous Air Canada experience was a period of time when I was commuting between Ottawa and Toronto once or twice a week for about a year. Those kinds of flights are just non-events; no luggage, only an hour in the air, and you hardly notice anything after a while. Therefore, my first international Air Canada journey in years was something of a rude (literally) shock.

Doggerelle and the two small pups, (now 18 months and nearly 4) travelled alone on the opening leg of the great Doggerel Party trip. As such, it would have been nice if there had been someone around to help her with the stroller, the car seat, the luggage and the two kids, at least between the gate and immigration. We called twice to arrange this service at Heathrow for her, but it never materialised. On the plane, the flight attendants were swapping entrees over the heads of my wife and kids, and managed to drop the beef dinner into my wife's lap, scalding her legs. Thankfully nothing hit the children. They didn't even apologise.

When I called to book children's meals, the phone attendant keyed in the booking reference, found the file and then announced that since I booked through an agent, they would have to call and reserve the meals. He hung up on me.

Trying to organize help at the Ottawa end for her solo trip back, I was (finally) told that the Meet and Assist service no longer exists. Why was I not told this when I mistakenly thought I'd booked it on the outward flight? Nobody knows.

Flight back: no entertainment system. Everyone gets a compensation voucher. Go online to redeem.

So, back to Ottawa, again with a month's worth of luggage for the family, plus the car seat, stroller, etc. Only this time, they've broken the stroller; the catch that locks it in the unfolded position is missing. So, the trip from the gate gets interesting: 4 year old, toddler, car seat, useless stroller, three carry-on bags. Not bad for one woman to manage on her own eh? Help? No, no we don't do that at Air Canada. Bad for business.

[Contrast this with a similar experience on Varig at Sao Paulo... they lost our stroller, and wouldn't let us leave the aircraft door... the flight attendant got on the phone to the baggage guys on the tarmac; then the cabin director took over the phone. Off the aircraft came the first officer. Flight attendant tells him what's happened. He takes the phone. Stream of rude sounding Portuguese from first officer to baggage crew. Stroller restored.]

Off to the baggage counter. Air Canada Baggage Man inspects stroller, insists it's oversize and shouldn't have been carried. Notwithstanding it's just completed it's fifth flight of the trip. Finally he grudgingly types up a damage report. Call Air Canada claims, he tells her.

An aircraft tech standing nearby (God bless him) overhears and finally someone helps. "You can't leave her like that with no stroller,' he says and whips up a quick temporary repair with cable ties. Presumably he didn't work for Air Canada.

Call Air Canada Claims. "You should have left the stroller at the airport," we're told. "You're not supposed to remove damaged items from the airport." Why didn't Baggage Man mention this? "He must have been busy." Doggerelle was the only person there. What to do in the meantime, now that we have no stroller that can be safely used? Not Air Canada's problem.

So, either drive the stroller back to the Ottawa airport and wait for them to figure out what to do, or suck it up and buy a new one out of pocket. Not much of a choice, really.

What is new about all of this, is that there was nobody anywhere in Air Canada who cares. Normally you might find big corporations with lousy service, but the odd human being in there, who at least cares, who can at least on a personal level empathise with the passenger as they're screwing them. Who might take pity on a mother who is forced to move through the airport in relays, leaving one child standing as far ahead as sight permits, then returning to collect the other child and other things. Who might think offering amends for a scalding hot meal in the lap would be appropriate. Who might be pro-active enough to recognize leaving a mother without a stroller is simply not safe. But on the whole trip, across four Air Canada international flights, every single employee we encountered was uniformly surly, rude, aggressive and unhelpful. There's no good people left at Air Canada.

Final attempt: those vouchers. Good for 5% off a future flight. 5%? It's insulting.

Markets are based on choice, and for flying internationally from Ottawa Air Canada is the only convenient (direct) choice. But no matter whether I drive to Montreal or Toronto, or have to change planes twice in the US, my family will never, ever, fly Air Canada again. The choice might be inconvenient, but if we find a pleasant staff member with a helpful smile it will be worth it. Take your 5% and stick it up one of your employees.

UPDATE: The comments show these experiences are not unique. Forgot to mention another classic; my daughter (being under 4 'n all) had fallen asleep in an aisle seat and in the process dropped her pillow and magazine in the aisle. Flight attendant, sweeping along aisle on some unknown mission, sees pillow and magazine on floor. Flight attendant to 3 11/12 year old: "You'll have to pick that up as a beverage cart is coming through soon," Storms off. Uh huh, cos you know all 3 year olds should know better than to obstruct a beverage cart. Let's make flying a fun experience for our kids, shall we?

It's not the inconveniences themselves, it's the fact that the attitudes of the people make the whole thing completely soul-destroying on a personal level. It challenges the very heart of our humanity and our belief systems, that someone can be placed in the nearly impossible situations in which Doggerelle found herself on this trip, struggling with more than one person can humanly do or carry, and Air Canada people can stand by and watch, or even make things worse. On a basic level, people shouldn't be like this with one another. To experience it the whole way through a long international trip really is spirit-crushing.