Air Canada Gives Airlines A New Low To Sink To

As the limbo stick descends near ground level on airline customer service, Air Canada is doing a very impressive back bend.

Stop the marimba. We may have a winner.

For an extra fee of $25 on short-haul flights or $35 on longer ones (payable in advance) Air Canada will provide customer service agents to help passengers when if it fails to deliver them to their destinations.

I guess that’s not a bribe in return for a promise of decent customer service. Well, not exactly.

This new program, dubbed "On My Way," offers "around-the-clock access to a dedicated group of specially trained Air Canada customer service agents" who will rebook your flight and arrange your hotel, meals and transportation. (You have to wonder what kind of non-special training  the three people assigned to answer everyone else’s calls got.)

So, could this be an outright admission that the standard service is crap, that the bottom has completely fallen out of airline customer service and we should all pray for high-speed rail? No, says Air Canada. It’s an additional service extended to cases where flights are affected by circumstances beyond the airline’s control, such as bad weather.

Yet much of this "service" is what airlines traditionally have done at no charge when a flight is canceled or delayed.  Airlines still have an obligation to rebook everyone who paid for a ticket. And it’s pretty clear that those who don’t pay the fee will deal with busy signals and long lines while the people who did will get the first seats on the next plane.

This is not fair. It’s as if you could pay extra to jump the line at a store to return faulty merchandise.

Sure, in cases where a flight is delayed by weather, the assurance of a free hotel could be useful. But that’s just trip insurance. You can buy that from TravelGuard. My problem is with the rest of the package – the preferential treatment for basic services that should be covered in the cost of the ticket and provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

There needs to be a minimum level of decency and service that comes with an airline ticket. Charging for that is a foul idea. It’s beastly. It’s noxious. It’s wrong.

Why do I smell a trend?


14 thoughts on “Air Canada Gives Airlines A New Low To Sink To

  1. Cranky Flier

    You bring up an interesting point. Personally, I think this is a fantastic idea because it covers you during weather delays, ATC delays, etc when regular passengers get nothing but the promise of the next available seat on an Air Canada flight.
    But, how will they end up treating people when it’s a mechanical delay? In that case, they have the same obligation to people who bought On My Way and people who didn’t, but will the On My Way people get preference? I’ll be curious to see this in action.

  2. Anonymous

    Makes me wonder what will come next. Oh wait… they could start charging for washrooms better yet combine it with no charging for beer and you got a mega winner! You could buy your non-refundable toilet visits at the time of flight booking at 30% discount. Frequent travelers can purchase toilet-passes – book of coupons valid for 3,6 or 12 months that can be redeemed on any flight. There’s an idea!

  3. Airline worker

    This service is already provided to elite customers. The fee extends the service to those who are not frequent travellers.
    To keep the cost of a ticket reasonable, airlines staff to regular operations, with limited flexibility, using overtime, to upscale to meet irregular operations. Though airline employees do their best to meet the needs of customers during difficult times, they are limited by airline policies (which are available to the customer before they purchase their ticket) to the extent of their assistance. There will never be enough resources to prevent long queues, telephone waits or busy signals during weather events. In fact, these happen during normal days when staffing problems occur.
    Charging for a premium service is nothing new. The airline market has changed and as much as we fondly remember the “good old days” (though in the public’s eye, I don’t think Air Canada ever had any), they have gone and we are faced with dealing with the realities of a much more unfriendly travel environment (unless we pay for “extra”).

  4. Anonymous

    Makes me wonder what will come next. Oh wait… they could start charging for washrooms better yet combine it with no charging for beer and you got a mega winner! You could buy your non-refundable toilet visits at the time of flight booking at 30% discount. Frequent travelers can purchase toilet-passes – book of coupons valid for 3,6 or 12 months that can be redeemed on any flight. There’s an idea!

  5. Anthony

    Jeanne, I agree with some of your evaluation of Air Canada’s new product “On My Way”. However, let’s keep in mind that the airline business has changed; the traditional airline does not exist any more within the North American airline reality.
    I agree that in the past airlines took better care of us in general, providing a hotel room and meal when a flight was cancelled for whatever reason but we also paid a lot more for that airline ticket.
    Less than five years ago a ticket from Toronto to Montreal was over $500.00 and there were many rules and regulations. In order to get the cheapest ticket you had to stay over a Saturday night, the ticket had to be a round trip. Failing to follow those rules and the price of your ticket for a one hour flight was over $1000.00 Today, very few of us would be willing to pay that kind of price when you can get a ticket as low as $65.00 one way between Toronto and Montreal.
    Those absurd rules were challenged by the low cost carriers. They sold us a seat on a plane for a cheap price with zero frills, everything extra came at a cost (seat assignment, meal, air-phones, etc.). We gave them our business and cheered in the era of the low cost carrier mentality. We signaled to the industry that we valued PRICE over the frills. Legacy carriers like Air Canada soon went bankrupt and had to adjust their way of doing business or face elimination.
    A legacy carrier like Air Canada has taken the model of the low cost carrier to stay alive. They offer us the same low fares stripped of any frills with the added option of being able to pay extra to get the frills. I find it interesting that we want to pay a low price for an airline ticket and expect the same service we received many years back when we paid twice or triple for the same trip. Not to mention that the price of oil today is no where close to where it was five or ten years ago.
    When an airline cancels a flight and it’s because of circumstances beyond their responsibility like weather, we the passengers are left to fend for yourselves. I see the value in having an agent rebook my flight, arrange for a hotel and meal for a price. Now, I don’t agree that a person who has not paid for the service should go to the bottom of the line when trying to get to an agent to rebook his/her flight.
    However, let’s not fool ourselves in believing that there isn’t a passenger hierarchy when we travel. The person in First or Business class gets to an agent much faster than the rest of us and they have paid for that service. A frequent flier with airline status such as a “Super Elite” or “Elite” with Air Canada, get access to a dedicated phone line.
    The industry has changed and so should our expectations. Don’t get me wrong, we should all be able to receive the basic services that come with buying an airline ticket on one carrier or another. However, if that airline wants to up sell special services for a price I don’t see anything wrong with that; no other airline to my knowledge in North America will give you a hotel room and a meal voucher when a flight is cancelled because of bad weather. What Air Canada is offering is a special add value/service for a cost.
    My main concern with this service would be one of transparency, is the person buying the “On My Way” service with Air Canada jumping the queue or will they be connected to a different department or call centre with a dedicated phone line such as the one the “Super Elite” gets to call. I guess the test of this product will be in its delivery.

  6. Greyhound Guy

    When it’s cheaper to fly than to take the bus (namely between Vancouver and Calgary; or between Toronto and Ottawa) it’s no wonder any novel idea is put in place to fill the airline coffers.
    Just ask Nationair, City Express, Royal, Canada 3000, Worldways, Canadian Airlines, Roots Airlines, Harmony Airways (to name just a few…) if its profitable to run an airline in this country…

  7. Don

    Anthony – I agree, to an extent.
    But basic customer service during delays and emergencies is something more elemental than a “frill” such as an in-flight movie or a meal. When an airline can charge extra for “upgraded” basic service, the problem is that the standard level of basic service is likely to fall. And that’s not OK.
    You’re absolutely right about bargain-shoppers expecting too much; this is especially true with business travelers who cleverly earn Elite status through lots of deeply discounted tickets, then demand the same perks as the frequent fliers who pay full freight.
    However, I’m sure that a share of Air Canada’s passengers stuck with their airline – and are now being penalized for their loyalty. In my case, when the difference is only $20 ot $30, I’ve stayed with Delta whenever possible … and avoided Southwest (largely) and AirTran (entirely).

  8. WestJet flyer

    Ah yes. Air Canada. Where the customer service slogan has become “We’re not happy…. until you’re not happy.”
    Westjet provides all of the services covered in this “extra” package at AC for free. (And no, I don’t work for that airline. But I’ll crawl a mile on broke glass before I ever fly with those gov’t-subsidized idiots at AC again.)
    I quit them a few years back, when I dropped a friend off for an int’l flight in Vancouver. We’d waited in line for 45 min’s for a customer service agent, and just as we got to the front of the line, and were getting ready to check my friend’s bags, the woman’s phone rang. She picked it up, burst into tears, and dissappeared. When someone else finally showed up to help us (another 20 min’s later), we asked if the original gal was OK.. if there had been a death in her family or something, because she seemed pretty distraught.
    Turns out the phone call was from her supervisor. Informing her – while she was working – that her position was being terminated in a week.
    That was the last time I’ve ever had anything to do with these low-lifes.
    And that’s why today, I’m a “WestJet flyer” for domestic flights, and an “anyone else” flyer for int’l.

  9. B Myers

    I find that the above article is incorrect on many points. Although I do not necessarily agree with the $25 service fee to assist travellers with interrupted trip hotel information and re-booking, it is important to keep in mind that this is strictly for non-airline fault. For example, should an Air Canada flight have maintenance issues or delays within the company’s control, it will provide free hotel and meal vouchers. There are plenty of airlines who do not recognize this responsibility (all one need do is read the airline Terms & Conditions, the “fine print”, rather, and one will find that Air Canada and some other airlines are extremely responsible when it comes to passenger handling which may negatively impact the customer due to the airline’s operations). For example, if a flight is cancelled due to operational issues/delays/etc., Air Canada, as mentioned above, will re-book, accommodate on the next available flight and provide hotel and meal vouchers complimentary. This is because it is the airline’s fault, not the passenger’s. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find an airline who is going to give you free meals and a hotel when there is a storm and no flights are operating. This is clearly not the airline’s fault. Although unfortunate, poor weather does happen, and I for one understand that it is the airline’s responsibility to decide not to operate in unsafe conditions due to weather, and for that, I am glad. Therefore, I find it entirely reasonable that there be a service specifically dedicated to assist travellers in unforeseen and extenuating circumstances which have no bearing on the airline. This service as I understand it, for $25, will allow the passenger to find a place to stay at low-cost and receive assistance and options for future travel. This service is also optional; airline personnel will (and are) required to rebook passengers on the next available flight and/or assist as necessary, and this service is simply an addition which one can choose. Instead of the passenger calling around to different hotels and then calling a separate number to reserve again, it is done all in one call. For the many passengers affected by Winter storms on the EastCoast these past few months, I am sure many would have found this a blessing. Further, it is interesting to note that many airlines DO NOT accommodate passengers when they have airline-caused operational delays and cancellations by providing hotels and meal vouchers. Expecting a free hotel when a plane cannot fly due to weather is not reasonable, and I do not know of ANY airline that will put people up for free if they are grounded due to weather. Most stand by the fact that their job is to get you from point A to B, regardless of length of delay, and that’s it. Fortunately, Air Canada still provides assistance and hotels when they are at fault (at no cost to the traveller); many airlines do not.

  10. Ronn Dunnett

    First, some pictures for you:
    April 1, 2008
    Air Canada Customer Service
    RE: AC 875 / AC2875
    To Whom it may concern:
    I am writing today with regards to Air Canada flight 875 and 2-875
    from Frankfurt to Montreal on March 21 and 22, 2008.
    The flight was scheduled to leave Frankfurt Germany at 11:10 AM on
    March 21, 2008. The boarding of the aircraft was routine and without
    incident. Following the completion of the first boarding, passengers
    – including myself – remained seated inside the aircraft for
    approximately 90 minutes after which the Captain of the aircraft
    (Mason) advised the passengers that there was a mechanical malfunction
    (ignition failure) with the port side engine and that we would be
    deplaning. Captain Mason stated that the aircraft would be deplaned
    because of the inability to cool the inside of the aircraft during the
    repair procedure. We remained at the gate for another 60-90 minutes
    before reboarding. Once we were back on the plane it took another 90
    minutes for the plane to be de-iced. The aircraft was then pushed back
    for departure whereupon we were told by Captain Mason that “this plane
    will not fly today.” and that the aircraft was being towed to another
    area of the airport for deplaning. By this time the temperature
    inside the aircraft had become unbearable. The aircraft was then towed
    to a holding area. At that time Captain Mason had changed his mind and
    decided to try to salvage the flight, advising us that a part was
    coming from Lufthansa and that after the part arrived and the repairs
    were made the flight would depart. By now the temperature in the cabin
    had peaked causing passengers – especially the infants and elderly on
    board – extreme discomfort. The air inside the cabin was stale and the
    odour from the toilets was overwhelming. At one point the cabin crew
    opened the aircraft doors to try to alleviate the heat and the stench,
    but this did little to improve the conditions in the cabin. I saw one
    mother with her child move past us – the child’s head was flush from
    the heat. A female passenger behind us barely made it to one of the
    cabin crew for water – she was very close to passing out. At this time
    I removed my video equipment from the overhead cabin and began to
    document the scene and conditions on the aircraft. It was obvious that
    in addition to the extremely uncomfortable conditions, the passengers
    – myself included – were experiencing anxiety over the manner in which
    the situation was being handled and about the integrity of the
    aircraft itself. At this point myself and at least 2 other passengers
    approached a flight attendant and expressed our concerns about our
    circumstances and in integrity of the aircraft and the hurried repairs
    that were being made. We made it clear to the flight attendant that we
    did not wish to travel on this aircraft and that we wished to leave
    the aircraft. At that time the senior flight attendant in charge
    approached both myself and the other passengers who wished to deplane
    and went into what must have been a very well rehearsed speech
    designed to intimidate those who may want to exit the aircraft under
    adverse circumstances and delivered loudly and forcefully in such a
    manner as to be heard by all of the other passengers in the cabin. It
    was evident that the senior flight attendant was trying to bully and /
    or humiliate us. I felt at this point that we were being both stalled
    and held against our wishes. I was becoming physically ill and I was
    stifling the urge vomit. Withing 30 minutes of the the senior flight
    attendant’s diatribe, Captain Mason informed us that he could not
    obtain permission from NavCanada to operate the aircraft and that he
    was officially cancelling the flight. That announcement came at
    approximately 4:30 pm. We were then kept on the aircraft for
    approximately another 30 minutes waiting for buses to arrive to take
    us back to the terminal.
    When the buses arrived we were allowed to deplane. We were taken back
    to the terminal and given insufficient information with regards to how
    the cancellation would be dealt with. It was mayhem. We finally
    learned that we would be staying another night in Frankfurt. In spite
    of the sketchy information that was provided to us by the cabin crew,
    most of the passengers located the hotel representative who lead us
    through the terminal to more awaiting buses which in turn took us to a
    local hotel for the evening. Upon check-in we were told that
    information on the rescheduled flight would be provided later that
    evening. We learned later that night that the flight was rescheduled
    for 9:00 AM and that 5:00 AM wake up calls had been ordered for all
    passengers by Air Canada. I did not receive such a wake up call. On
    the morning of March 22, 2008 we boarded buses that took us back to
    the terminal at Frankfurt where we made our way to the Air Canada
    check-in counter. At 6:15 AM I was one of the first in line at the
    counter. At 7:05 AM only two Air Canada ticketing agents were present
    and only one of those was actively attending to passengers. At that
    time the number of passengers waiting to be processed included all of
    those from the cancelled flight plus the passengers from a regularly
    scheduled flight. It was a scene of utter kaos. A male Air Canada
    agent busied himself by slowly loading labels into the luggage tag
    printers while the other female agent tried to process a growing,
    frustrated group of passengers from two flights. The female agent had
    a large stack of pre-printed boarding passes. As passengers pushed
    forward and presented themselves she would attempt to flip through the
    stack of boarding passes one at a time looking for that passengers
    name. At least twice she moved from behind the counter out into the
    mass of passengers waving the boarding passes around and shrieking
    that the passengers must get in line – even though they were in line
    and had been since 6:15. The actions (and inaction) of the Air Canada
    counter agents caused even more agitation amongst the large crowd of
    passengers. At one point a frustrated passenger continued to ask the
    make agent who was loading the baggage tag printers why he was not
    helping process passengers. The Air Canada ticket agent did not reply
    or even acknowledge the question and continued to load the printers
    while ignoring the passenger. At approximately 8 AM I received my
    boarding pass. When my flight landed in Montreal I had less than one
    hour to catch the connecting flight I had been re-booked on.
    Throughout this connection I found the Air Canada staff to be both
    unhelpful and unfriendly. As part of my luggage I had a case that
    contained two valuable musical instruments and as per the instructions
    of the Air Canada gate agents, these were submitted by hand to the
    “special” baggage handling areas. One both occasions when I collected
    my luggage the instrument case was delivered with the regular luggage
    which, in Montreal, almost caused me to miss my flight. One of the
    instruments was damaged during handling.
    In air travel, it is completely reasonable to expect delays due to a
    variety of reasons and as a reasonable person and a regular air
    traveler, I can accept that. As a reasonable person and regular air
    traveler, I also have certain expectations. I do not think it is
    unreasonable to expect that Air Canada would anticipate scenarios
    such as flight AC875 and that contingency plans would be in place and
    would be designed to minimize the stress and discomfort a passenger
    might experience under such circumstances.
    Nothing – nothing I experienced on AC875 or AC2875 would lead me to
    believe that the Air Canada representatives involved in this situation
    truly cared about Air Canada’s customers on AC875 or AC2875. We were
    all treated like cattle. Nothing I experienced would lead me to
    believe that any contingency Air Canada might have for such incidents
    was practiced or properly executed. The senior flight attendant was
    nothing less than abusive in her attempts to bully and humiliate
    passengers who voiced legitimate concerns. The agents at the Air
    Canada check in counter were unhelpful, unfriendly, abusive,
    unprepared and incompetent. As a photojournalist, I want Air Canada to
    understand that my experience on flight AC875 and AC2875 is well
    documented in both photo and video.
    You may view some but not all of the images by following this link:
    I chose to fly with Air Canada not because I want to, but because most
    of the time I have no other choice. On the occasions where I do have a
    choice, I will fly with another airline, even it it means driving to
    another city. In spite of those efforts I still find myself a
    “Platinum” Aeroplan member. (Who is STILL owed a promised number of
    upgrade passes upon becoming a Platinum member – might those be coming
    anytime soon?). I know that at some point I will have to no choice but
    to fly with Air Canada, and that is, in part, one reason for this
    letter. As a reasonable person, I would like to afford Air Canada the
    opportunity to make good on what was the worst travel experience I
    have ever had in my 45 years. It didn’t have to be this way and it
    would have taken so little to make this difficult situation manageable.

  11. William Smith

    Anthony, Very well put.
    WestJet Flyer, Sure…
    Ronn, In your 45 years of flying, how much effort have you put into writing about the many flights that went perfectly? (probably not very much) Any pictures? (probably not) Any videos? Not likely. I’ve been on flights like the one you mentioned before. They’re not fun, but I’d much rather put up with delays and lineups, than go up in a broken plane. And as for being treated like cattle, in my experience, passengers treated like cattle are usually the ones acting like cows.

  12. Pilot

    If Air Canada charged this “On My Way” fee at the point of service would we see it in a different light? Suppose a flight is cancelled and there are two lines one that is free and staffed with one overwhelmed agent and another line charging $25 with ample staff. Would the weary traveller feel he is being played?


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