Air Canada — A Morality Tale

May 27 2011
This is the story of how I nearly didn’t get to Fredericton, New Brunswick on Air Canada for my plenary address in the “Big Thinking” series at the annual meeting of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. It was all my fault.

I began with the big mistake of checking in at home and arriving early at La Guardia. I got to the airport so early, in fact on May 27, that there were two Air Canada flights due to leave for Toronto before mine. I asked if I could go on an earlier flight and the Air Canada agent said sure if I paid $75.00. That didn’t seem worth it. So I went away. But then I remembered I didn’t have a frequent flyer number in the reservation. So I went back and talked to a different agent who volunteered, after entering my Continental frequent flyer number, to put me on an earlier flight … no fee mentioned. (Even on Air Canada, Continental has miraculous powers!) This time, it seemed sensible to say yes. As I was leaving she mentioned something about a link nor working, but, hey, she would work it out and I could go ahead. Not being a trusting person I checked on the issue again at the gate counter, where they also said something mysterious about a missing link—I know I was thinking Australopithecus, too. In any case, they wrote down my name on a piece of paper and reassured me that all was well. Second big mistake: believing them.

By the time we were actually boarded and ready to go, we were due to land pretty close to when I was originally scheduled to arrive on the later flight. Scheduled departure times from La Guardia on Air Canada turn out to be like a politician’s promises: rarely kept, and then only by accident. But I got on this late early flight without difficulty, and got through passport and customs and security in twenty minutes or so on arrival in Toronto. It’s a great airport. Well, not so great perhaps, when it comes to nourishment. I had some revolting chicken strips and a bourbon on the rocks (also revolting … but it lifted my mood) before spending a couple of hours at the right gate in Toronto.

Then I got up to board Air Canada 8960 when my row was called. Another big mistake. The gate agent told me that I wasn’t on the flight and handed me over to her superior. I was not pleased and I said so and she told me that I would just have to wait until they had boarded the flight. No explanation. No apology. And a remark to the effect that the flight was fully booked. I pointed out that they had boarded people—one of who had approached me as I sat at the gate—who were on the plane expecting to hear me speak to them at a conference the next morning. (One young woman kindly mentioned to the agent as she boarded that she thought it was important to get me on.)

So now they board everybody, including another woman who arrived after me and appeared to be in even worse shape so far as the computer was concerned. (And, by the way, the explanation that she gets essentially treats her as if it’s her fault, too.) Naturally I wonder if this is my reward for complaining.

Throughout all this they refuse several times to put me in touch with a supervisor, saying they are too busy boarding. But finally there is only me … only now they are too busy trying to find the passengers for whom they have delayed the flight. Here in front of them is a passenger who paid full fare weeks ago, checked in yesterday, flew in early today and waited patiently believing that a boarding pass (one that had been looked at by a gate agent at La Guardia) was a sort of promise, and somehow actually putting him on the plane is less urgent than scanning for the other people who are delaying the flight.

I ask at this point when the next flight is and am told that it is tomorrow morning and fully booked. (Note to the Canadian Federation: Fredericton is a terrible place for a national conference. There are too few flights in and out and all of them are on Air Canada). So, since the time for my lecture is going to be past by the time I get there, I am reconciled to sleeping in the airport—but looking forward to wasting time fighting for Air Canada to pay for my hotel … I know, fat chance … and going back home in the morning.

And then, somehow—no explanation, no apology—I am given a boarding pass. I say thank you. And the agent tells me she knows what happened, it happens all the time, but I need to get on the plane so she doesn’t have time to explain it to me. Actually, I can figure out the options myself. Sloppy software design or sloppy gate agents at La Guardia. And she’s right. It doesn’t matter to me which. I realize that as I sat there at the gate, doing what they ask you to do, they were busy filling up the airplane with stragglers including the one to whom they gave my seat. I find I don’t feel too guilty about the straggler who will arrive to find the plane full and gone because I have the seat they had been planning to give her. She, on the other hand, will be added to the list of people unhappy with the airline … right after me.

On the way back, I upgraded myself to business class, in the hope of increasing my chances. When I got to Toronto, I didn’t wait patiently at the gate, I went up to the gate agent and asked if she could confirm that my onward reservation was okay … and was treated with supreme condescension by the lady who explained to me that I was just fine if I had a boarding pass! Not worth explaining to her why that’s a hoot. Both flights left late, of course.

Unfortunately, I had to fly on Air Canada once more. I had bought a pretty economical business class seat for a flight to Hong Kong with my partner the next week. I was once pleased with myself for having discovered an airline with relatively inexpensive business class seats to Asia (we took them to Tokyo last year). For the record, this trip went well … except for the connection in Toronto on the way back. This was a Continental flight. Our connecting flight was delayed. Continental took the trouble to move us to an earlier flight—I didn’t ask, they just volunteered. (Once more being a Continental Frequent Flyer was what did it … not, it turned out, having a business class seat on the Air Canada flight incoming.)

I hope that was my last flight on Air Canada. Airlines shouldn’t threaten to dump you in an airport that you thought was just a place of transit because they screwed up. If they do, they should apologize. I’ve flown well over a million miles and made hundreds of connections and no other airline ever canceled my onward boarding pass. So, if anyone asks me, I’d advise against Air Canada and tell them that if they are ever making an Air Canada connection they should check in again at the connecting airport as soon as they get there. I would have had to do this if I had had any checked luggage on my way to Fredericton. But that was my last mistake. I was only carrying one small New Yorker bag that fits easily under the seat in front of me. My bad. On the way back from Hong Kong, we checked our tiny bags. Slowed us down, of course. But our boarding passes worked.