Blogs & Comment

Why Air Canada can take a flying leap

Air Canada sent me an email this week, offering to show me the “finer side of travel” for an extra $425, which would allow me to access a limited number of its “extensive network” of airport lounges. I did a double-take because this is an airline that recently showed my family the not-so-fine side of using its services.
In the first quarter, Air Canada posted a net loss of $400 million, up from a net loss of $288 million in Q1 2008. CEO Calin Rovinescu knows he has work to do. Since taking the helm earlier this year, he has “focused on Air Canada’s immediate priorities over and above the impact of this long and unrelenting recession. We have a strong management team in place and together, we are tackling each priority one by one. They are: obtaining pension funding relief, building liquidity, finding creative revenue generation while working hard to earn customer loyalty, reducing unit costs to reach competitive cost levels and, in the longer term, achieving acceptable margins by creating value for customers and shareholders through profitable growth.”
I honestly dont know what I would do about many of the to-do items listed above. But I do know what Air Canada would have to do to make me even consider being a loyal customer, not to mention pay extra to sit in one of its lounges. Simply put, someone at the company would have to care enough to make up for the fact that it let me down as a customer in the first quarter.
Forgive the following rant. But in late March, I went to Torontos Pearson International, hoping to sit in one of the three AC seats that I had bought well in advance for a family vacation to Nassau. We were at the airport early, waiting to check-in, when an AC employee working the line grabbed our tickets and checked us in electronically. She then made a face and told me to stay in line since I had a small problem.
“Really,” I said, “Is the flight delayed?” I asked. I actually had a list of other flights leaving Toronto for Nassau that day in my pocket. Flying Air Canada in the past has taught me to plan for the worst. “No,” the AC employee replied. “Everything is fine with the flight. Please just stay in line.”
After being left to steam for about 40 minutes, I got to the counter, where I was told I had failed to select actual seat locations for my family when buying tickets online, and, as a result, my family had lost one ticket due to a seating issue. I responded by pointing out a piece of paper that showed I had indeed selected our seats months ago.
“My computer says you didn’t,” I was told, meaning I must have forged the document in my hand. But I let that go when I learned that the AC employee who had grabbed our tickets in line had checked me in along with my wife, which potentially left my four-year-old daughter behind waiting for another flight.
Instead of handing my kid the car keys, I asked to have my daughter put in my seat. That was done, but then I was told the family luggage would be removed from the plane because it was checked in using my name. After a battle of words, I let that go and asked when AC would start trying to put me on another flight. I pulled out my list of other planes leaving for Nassau that morning, noting I still had time to get on a Westjet flight. That got a good laugh. I was told new flights would be found for bumped passengers after the AC flight (and all the other options) had left.
At this point, I asked if there was any room left in First Class. I was told there were actually a few seats. I offered to buy one. I was told they were being held for some people who had been bumped for not selecting seat numbers when buying tickets. I mentioned again that I had selected my seats. That got another laugh out of the zombies behind the counter.
My daughter started crying. Why cant you come on vacation, daddy? My wife told me not to answer the question with bad words. Thats when I was told I should move along to the gate and simply wait to see how many people on the flight failed to show.
You mean there are people who have not checked-in yet and they still have seats while I am here and I dont? I asked. Yes, I was told, you dont have a seat because you didnt select a seat number when you bought the tickets. But wait and see. The flight closes in 5 minutes and you might get a seat if someone fails to show.
And thats when I realized I should just continue holding up the line, which I did. After three brutal hours, my family boarded a much smaller plane than I expected. Air Canada had switched planes and my seats were lost in the computer shuffle because I had selected seats in a high row number not offered on the smaller flight. We ended up in the back row, the one typically used by AC flight attendants. Thats ok, Sir, I was told. We really dont mind too much when customers need our seats.
Thats the last communication I have had with the company, at least it was before the email offer this week. And it would have been nice if someone had tried to make up for a not-so-fine travel experience before trying to sell me a good one. Thats how customer loyalty is won.
___________________________
DOUBLE TAKE:Aside from trying to promote myself while generating Web traffic that helps put bread and butter on my table, this blog aims to stir debate by taking a harder look at current news and events. I obviously enjoy voicing my own opinions, but I am a big boy and I welcome all comments that dont require R ratings. So let me have it via this blog or send me an email at tom.watson@canadianbusiness.rogers.com. I reserve the right to post email comments without disclosing the senders name. If you dont think I am a total twit, follow my DOUBLE TAKE posts via my NotSOCRATES Twitter site at http://twitter.com/NotSocrates. THOMAS WATSONis a Senior Writer and editorial board member at Canadian Business magazine. Since winning a community journalism award as a cub reporter with the Hamilton Spectator in the early 90s, he has covered business, finance, politics and technology for various news outlets. Prior to joining CB in 2001, he reported on the steel and automotive sectors for the Financial Post. Watson received his first magazine award nomination for exposing a stock manipulation plot aimed at Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text in 2000, when he was head of investor relations for an international venture capital outfit in the City of London. Watson holds graduate degrees in journalism, international relations and public finance and undergraduate degrees in history and politics.