When Size is a Disadvantage: My Air Canada Story

airplaneYesterday I arrived at Montreal Airport at about 4:30pm for my 6pm return flight to Toronto. I was surprised to note that it was already listed as ‘delayed’, scheduled to depart at 6:30pm. I got my boarding pass from the machine and headed to the bar for an early dinner, and ended up exchanging Air Canada stories with two other guys at the bar who were waiting for the same flight. We all admitted we would rather be flying on the ‘upstart’ airline Westjet. but for logistical reasons were flying Air Canada. The terminal was jammed because all flights to the US East Coast were seriously delayed or canceled, and the temperature was near 90 Fahrenheit. We boarded the flight at 6:30 and twenty minutes later were told by a very flustered and tongue-tied flight attendant that the plane had ‘serious mechanical problems with its hydraulic systems’, that they would know in about an hour whether it was fixable, and that if anyone wanted to ‘jump ship’ there were still 50 seats available on the 10pm flight. A few people ‘jumped ship’.

At 7:30 we were told that the problem was not fixable and that we had to deplane and talk to the Air Canada rep about other arrangements. After we disembarked, we were told that a replacement plane had been arranged for us at the other end of the terminal. After a ten minute trek we discovered that the replacement plane was the one destined for Winnipeg, and that all the Winnipeg passengers had been given a new departure gate and later departure time. There was open discussion as to whether they were bumped to make room for the larger Toronto passenger group, and whether they would make it home at all that night. Announcements were few and far between, and it was left largely to the passengers to tell each other where their new gate was, and to organize ourselves. On top of that, the clerk at the gate said she had to go to look after her Winnipeg flight, so for half an hour there was no one from Air Canada at our ‘new’ gate at all. When they finally arrived, they clearly did not know how to manage such a situation, muttered to each other for fifteen minutes, and finally announced that because it was a different sized plane, all boarding passes would have to be reissued. Rather than just ‘mapping’ from the old seat assignments to the new ones, they reassigned every seat on a first come, first served basis. It took two of them 45 minutes to do this for about 150 passengers, and I was one of the first to board the new plane at 8:50. At 9:30 they told us that the new plane had a broken auxiliary engine so there would be no air conditioning until we pushed back. At 9:45 they told us that the auxiliary engine was also needed to jump-start the plane, and that the truck brought in to ‘boost’ the plane had failed to do so. The heat and smell at this point were suffocating. At 10:00 a second truck successfully boosted the plane, and at 10:20, almost 4 1/2 hours late, we took off.

The first apology we heard since the beginning of this ordeal came from the captain at 9:45. I got home just after midnight, eight hours after I had left my Montreal client — it would have been faster, more comfortable, and much cheaper, to drive. And other than a free beer or wine on board, no compensation was offered for the inconvenience.

What are the lessons from this story?

  1. The value of prevention: It’s much better to prevent problems from occurring than to try to cope with them when they do. One mechanical problem every once in awhile is unavoidable even with good preventative maintenance; two back-to-back problems is inexcusable. Small airlines don’t have the luxury of bringing in ‘back-up’ aircraft, and in my experience they are better at this than the big guys.
  2. The importance of not over-promising: All of the expected departure and arrival times given to us were wildly optimistic. Many passengers were arranging pick-ups and connecting flights by cell-phone, and had to change them at least six times. Smaller companies ‘get’ this: they give you a worst-case time, not a best-case one.
  3. The value of agility: Why is there no automatic, computerized re-mapping of boarding passes when passengers need to change planes. This is not that rare an occurrence. If it had been a small airline, they would simply have honored all boarding passes on any seat in the same class on the aircraft, and not bothered assigning seats at all. In fact, some of them only have one class and have no assigned seats. And why couldn’t they break Standard Operating Procedure and have the check-in clerks stay where they were, instead of swapping back and forth with the gate changes?
  4. The importance of courtesy: Too little information, too infrequently, inarticulately provided, and too few apologies. Come on, guys, this is not rocket science. Good thing we were patient, peace-loving, non-line-jumping Canadians.
  5. The importance to treating everyone equally: In a crisis situation, you can’t play favourites. This is a Titanic lesson. What appeared to be blatantly sacrificing the Winnipeg passengers for the Toronto ones was inexcusable. And taking the business class and frequent-flyer passengers first after everyone had been waiting an hour in unbearable heat (which they tried to do, and then thought better of) was just dumb.
  6. The value of service recovery: When you mess up, bend over backwards to recover the lost goodwill. Giving passengers compensation would have repaid itself many times over in repeat business, which Air Canada will now not get from many of these passengers.

Small is beautiful. From big computer makers to big airlines to big media to big pharma to big agribusiness, bigger is worse — for the economy, for the environment, and for the customer. When will we learn?

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5 Responses to When Size is a Disadvantage: My Air Canada Story

  1. MommyCool says:

    Beautiful written. It’s such the common experience. How many times have we rushed through the airport with thousands of others without a thought of what we were doing. Your six points should be require reading of anyone entering an airport, especially to work!

  2. Yule Heibel says:

    What a nightmare scenario — glad to hear you survived and did manage to get home. You’re right in your analysis: bigger isn’t better at all. If anything, all “negative externalities” are pushed off on consumers/ customers in the name of an “efficiency” that isn’t very efficient in fact.Well, on a positive note: at least Air Canada isn’t handing out psalms with its meals. My husband had to travel on Alaska Airlines on business last week, and got a Bible passage with his crapola snack. He was pretty offended. On both counts. Then again, it could be gallows humour, too: pray that you arrive!, pray that you arrive! ;-)

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Customers have been telling airlines to let them know what’s going on .. as an antidote to terrible service such as this .. for eons now. I don’t think they’re capable of learning.

  4. Cyndy says:

    I had a similar experience, though due to thunderstorms, on US Air a few years ago. There was a point that was crossed where attendents who had been dutifully and quietly answering questions individually began to look at the passengers with fear in their eyes. One would think there would be far less questioning if the PA system worked properly and they used it.Good thing we were patient, peace-loving, non-line-jumping Canadians.I love that sentence. That was far from my experience on US Air unfortunately, but the remainder resonates.

  5. Slawek Rogulski says:

    “Small is beautiful. … When will we ever learn?”Indeed! When? Looking at the current trends of MNCs not that soon. Isnt the food chain os smaller bigger eating the smaller? Then as a result the bigger gets even bigger, and so on it repeats. One day you get the likes of mega corporations that have often been compared to small countries in statements like “these corporations have more power and wealth than small countries”.Economies of scale and drive for profit through efficiency demand such a course of events. This says to me that the results we are seeing are rooted deeply in the DNA of our economic systems.I can also see parellels to this in how civilizations have developed. And then I remember that those civilizations have fallen. And then new ones have appeared. So perhaps this is the natural cycle of building up in size to a point where it all falls apart. Then we start again small. Sometimes we remember the lessons of the past and as we build up we try to do a better job but in majority of cases we still aim for the sky. And then we become victims of our success and it falls apart.Is it because we do ot cooperate but compete? For if we cooperated we could cooxist as a cooperative in the diversity and on a smaller individual scale. When we compete we play a win/loose game. I am not the first oen to think in those terms but I think old habits die hard. The momentum of the old ways is not spent yet.

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