Monday, January 19, 2009

On Air Travel

Flew up to Edmonton to check on my Mom (I was worried about her having been relocated within the nursing home) and to check on the renovations done to Doug's place, and to arrange for renovations to begin on the next condo, and so on.

On the plane up from Calgary the flight attendant asked if I would be willing to switch places with the guy sitting next to the emergency exit because he didn't want to be responsible for opening the door if it came to that. (He looked sick, so maybe he felt he was too weak to do the job.) "There's more leg room in that row" the Stewardess told me, by way of providing me with an incentive. I shrugged and moved rows because, what the hey. So she does her training spiel, which I've heard maybe 12 times this year, and on the Dashes, the emergency door really is not that complicated. But I'm feeling put out about having to go up to Edmonton in the first place, so when she asks if there are any questions, I reply by asking, "Is there a discount for sitting in the exit row?" Without missing the beat, the Stewardess leans in close and whispers, "Only if we have to use it."

Which seemed pretty funny until I got to the apartment and saw footage of the jet in the Hudson river.

Especially when a commentator pointed out that one reason that everyone survived is that no one panicked and opened the emergency exits prematurely. "They followed procedure for that kind of plane and only opened the forward door – if any of the rear emergency exits had been opened, the plane would have sunk much faster." Which made me wince, since I had spent half the flight up to Edmonton telling myself, "If something happens, I not going to freeze up like I usually do, I'm going to pull that lever like she showed me and shove that door out the plane before it even stops rolling!" Apparently you're supposed to await instructions before opening that sucker. (The other half of the flight up, I'd been thinking, "If it is just that easy to open this emergency door, what's to prevent some drunken idiot or sacrificial terrorist from opening it mid-flight? That can't be good!)

But it raises the question: when your plane goes down, do you get a full refund? It's the sort of question Larry King never gets around to asking the survivors. So did they give them just another flight to that destination, or do they throw in a couple of freebies to make up for the trauma of it all? At least an up grade to 1st class? (With Air Canada's recent attitude, I'd suspect they might say "Well, you can't expect a full refund! After all, we got you half way there!") Personally, if it were me on a flight like the Hudson river ditching or the Gimely Glider incident, I'm thinking Greyhound vouchers might be the way to go.

Still, I appreciate that my flight attendant had kept her sense of humuor when this has not been a good couple of months for Air Canada. I'd spent five hours in the Lethbridge airport last Thursday, for example, waiting for a flight that never arrived. When it became obvious that I wasn't going to make the last possible connection in Calgary and I had asked that my flight be switched to this week instead, the desk clerk had said "Certainly! I'm sure there'll be no problems next week at all!" with such hysterical enthusiasm you knew she was being facetious. Clearly, she considered booking any flight out of my local airport during Dec - Feb an act of pointless optimism.

The recent air travel problems are particularly aggrevating for folks like us in the smaller airports. When Toronto and Vancouver had their respective storms/problems, the airlines' solution was to give priority to long haul passengers, because they could bring in a couple of 747s and fly a 1000 folks out at a time. Which works okay if you're going Toronto to Vancouver, or Toronto to Halifax, but if you're like us and have to connect through Calgary, you're always the lowest priority, because Calgary to Vancouver is always considered a short haul connection, even if you are making a connection there to somewhere else entirely. Indeed, almost by definition, anyone living on the Pariries or Atlantic Canada is screwed by this policy, since going from your home airport to your hub connection is necessarily 'short haul', while going from Toronto to anywhere is, well, a long haul priority. Hmmm. Does this pattern look familiar to anyone? So no wonder that paririe assengers were often left stranded in airports for days at a time -- unless they were on WestJet, of course.

And what, the consumer may ask, has been Air Canada's response to the debacle of the last two months? Has it relented on the downsizing that left Air Canada so thinly staffed that if a plane misses its connection, there's no aircrew available to man the next leg? Has it hired sufficient staff to man the desks and telephones to keep people informed and to help them rebook? To hand out hotel bookings and meal tickets? Nnoooo! It's to introduce a new service called "On My Way", which -- for an extra $35 per travel segment -- will provide you with the all stuff the Transportation Ministry says is every passenger's by right. In one fell swoop, Air Canada simultaneously pockets a bunch more cash and shifts the blame from themselves to the consumer. "Well I'd like to help you re-book your arbitrarily canceled flight, but you chose not to purchase our "On My Way" protection, so I can't." By paying the $35, the folks at the airport still won't help you, but they'll give you the number of a call center that will actually answer the phone. "Priority access to our team of specially-trained Air Canada On My Way agents who are available around the clock to assist you with all your unexpected travel needs." And, get this, "Automatic flight information notification/updates sent to you by email or SMS." They'll actually tell you that your flight is delayed or canceled, if you've paid the extra extortion fee. In contrast to what we observed the last few months where the Air Canada staff would simply turn off the flight announcement monitors and leave their desks so people couldn't complain to them or ask them questions.

So the rich and the desperate can pay what amounts to a third-world-style kick-back to Air Canada for them to actually supply the services for which we contracted, while the rest of us schleps are left to just cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Or, take WestJet.

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