Service is not exactly the name of the game for Air Canada at the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar.

The airline of arrogance

Monopolies breed arrogance and Air Canada’s position at the Castlegar airport is a prime example.

On Page 2 of today’s paper you can read about WestJet’s official announcement for its new regional airline. It puts the West Kootenay Regional Airport one step closer to bringing serious competition to the skies over Nelson. Here’s hoping the Calgary-based carrier chooses us.

Monopolies breed arrogance and Air Canada’s position at the Castlegar airport is a prime example.

This past Saturday the Hall Family had a busy morning. The start of the minor hockey season had us traveling to Rossland, but first we had to drop off my mother-in-law at the regional airport for a flight to Calgary. It was normal morning chaos, but we had it planned to get to the airport an hour before.

As is usually the case, we were taking a couple extra hockey players with us and every seat in the seven-passenger mini-van was going to be used. A mix-up with one of the kids caused a glitch in the plan as he showed up a half hour late. I assured my mother-in-law we would still make it on time.

Saturday morning traffic on Highway 3A was heavier than expected on this ideal autumn day and with some drivers taking in the fall colours along Kootenay River it was slow going. We did manage to arrive 20 minutes ahead of the flight.

Having flown out of the sleepy airport on several occasions, I was still confident as we approached that we would make the flight. With my mother-in-law traveling light and the check-in a mere seven steps away from security, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Turns out it was a problem.

I completely understand the demands the airline industry faces on an hourly basis. The nature of this kind of travel is high paced and prone to unpredictable situations. Airlines ask for passengers to arrive well ahead of their flight for good reason. It’s to protect the greater good and ensure everything runs as smooth as possible.

We were told by the ticket agent that my mother-in-law would not be able to board the airplane. Jazz policy says 30 minutes prior and we were standing there with 18 to go. Sorry ma’am, I know you were looking forward to your very important trip to Calgary to attend an awards banquet and visit dear friends. Policy is policy.

The look on my mother-in-law’s face was extreme sadness. She is one of the toughest gals I know, so she was pretty brave during that moment. I was stunned. As security guards happily chatted with nothing to do and the passengers just starting to line-up to board the plane, I couldn’t believe that an exception couldn’t be made for a sweet 68-year-old woman.

My first instinct was to snap and make a scene. But I’m not that guy. I’ve since been told by several friends that they’ve witnessed people arriving late who have cried their way onto the flight. In hindsight I should have made that scene, but instead chose a strongly worded letter.

That day Air Canada had a choice: to make somebody’s day or ruin it. They chose the latter. It’s easy to do because the consequences of poor customer service is not as drastic for a monopoly.

The response was unapologetic. The Air Canada Jazz spokesperson told me in an email about company policy. Addressing me like a person who has never set foot in an airport, she explained the obvious. She didn’t answer the question: why a company that deals with adversity every day can’t adapt to situations where obvious customer service would win the day?

To be fair to Air Canada I contacted both WestJet and Pacific Coastal. They didn’t want to comment on my specific situation, but were happy to speak about their own policy. The policies mirror Air Canada, check-in times are there to protect the greater good. That said, both carriers were much more passionate about delivering service based on situations as they arise.

“You have to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis,” I was told by WestJet.

A 68-year-old woman arriving to an airport where there were no lines and employees far from stressed would seem to be a case for letting her board.

“We do our best to make sure the experience is as easy and convenient for our customers,” I was told by Pacific Coastal at the Trail airport. “That is what we are here for.”

Air Canada’s tact seems to make the experience as lousy as possible. My Saturday situation only serves to add another notch in that logbook of failed experiences with our “national carrier.”

The roots of Air Canada sprouted in 1936 when the federal government started Trans Canada Airlines. At that juncture in aviation history it was important for a nation the size of Canada to have government support for such an endeavor. In 1965, the airline was still under federal government control and renamed Air Canada.

Since that time the airline has had a tumultuous financial record. Several highs, but mostly lows. It became a crown corporation in 1978 to allow fair competition. In 1987 the government passed legislation to further allow for an even playing field and the company was privatized. Since that time Air Canada has had a few years where they were in the black, but mostly they have been soaked in red.

The Air Canada model clearly doesn’t work in today’s economy. It can be argued that a strong national airline is important. On many occasions the federal government has meddled in its business to ensure its viability. It’s time to stop.

WestJet broke into the industry 16 years ago with customer service being its focus. The airline has shown the veteran of the Canadian skies a model that works, yet Air Canada continues to put the customer second.

WestJet is currently weighing its options and identifying communities where it wants to fly into. I can only hope one day soon it lands in the West Kootenay.

 

Bob Hall is the editor at the Nelson Star. He can be reached at bob@nelsonstar.com

 

 

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