A Customer Service Story

PearsonAirport Over the past few days I have been wavering back and forth about this story and exactly how I feel about the outcome. After an unexpected email response today I decided to share it with you.

Leslie and I planned a vacation to Costa Rica with friends of ours. The condominium rental was from Monday to Monday so we decided to include a stop in Florida over the preceding weekend to visit my dad and stepmother.

The date of our departure was to be Friday February 8, 2013. Yes, that was the day of the largest snowstorm in Toronto in the last 5 years. Well, we made it to the airport just fine. Max made it back home safely with our car and after a short delay we boarded our plane at the gate.

Not to bore you with all the details (although the next time we are chatting, I would be happy to fill in the blanks), after three crew changes and multiple delays, our flight was cancelled. We never left the gate.

We headed back through customs never having left the airport and found the customer service lineup for Air Canada. We were told that no flights would leave today and that since we live in Toronto we were best to go home and call the 1-800 number to make alternate arrangements.

That seemed like sound advice, so we struggled our way home through the snow. Once home we dialed up Air Canada and after a few busy signals we got placed on hold. That hold lasted 4 hours until we were so exhausted that we finally gave up and went to bed.

We started again on Saturday morning at 7:00 am. After about 5 hours on hold, captive in our kitchen listening to Air Canada talk about the rewards the airline has received, and touting their new Rouge service along with new routes (never any indication that we were in a cue or how long until our call would be answered) we decided to head out the the airport to talk to someone in person. That seemed like it might be the way to move things ahead.

Leaving our phone on hold we headed out the the airport. All seemed very quiet and normal until we hit about the middle of terminal 1. There was a lineup bigger than I had ever witnessed. Yes this was the lineup of people hoping to see an agent to rebook. There were actually serving cookies and snacks in line. One of these Air Canada “cookie” staff told us that we could expect at least an 8 hour wait if we decided to join this lineup.

I paid my $6.00 parking bill and headed back home where my phone was still playing that recording.

It was at this point that I started to wonder about service at Air Canada. It seems to me that running an airline has to be one of the most complicated and regulated businesses around. The arrival of the storm was no surprise.

I have to ask?

  • Why did the reservation system not automatically release my canceled flight that would allow my travel agent to make alternate plans?
  • Why was there not enough staff in place to handle the phones? Surely they don’t all have to work in one big office in Toronto.
  • How could anyone from Air Canada think that an 8 hour wait in line was acceptable? There must be some way to do this better.

My problem was finally solved by my amazing travel agent who decided to contact United Airlines. Except for the first flight, all our other plans were with United (an Air Canada Star Alliance partner). They were easily able to rebook us to Costa Rica on Monday but even the agent needed to get a supervisor to release the first flight so that these plans could get firmed up.

Until this morning (Friday February 15, 2013) I was pretty disgusted with the lack of attention by Air Canada. During the on hold time on Friday I sent an email asking how I should get in touch to resolve my issues. I figured it was worth a try.

Well much to my surprise I received a response today. The email started by explaining what exactly caused the delays:

  • “Toronto Airport’s central de-icing facility became non-operational”
  • “the airport’s inability to adequately clear the runways and gate areas”
  • “displacing thousands – customers and crews included”

The email then went on to remind me that I could receive compensation for any portion of my trip that was unused. Hopefully this will apply to my Florida ticket.

And….

“As a gesture of goodwill for the difficulties you encountered both at the airport and rebooking your travel I am attaching a promo code that will provide you with a 10% discount on a future flight with Air Canada”

So how did this affect my feelings towards Air Canada?

I have been flying with Air Canada for many years and this is the first time I’ve had any real issue with the service. I don’t question the need to cancel the flight. This was certainly a matter of safety. They were clearly overwhelmed and perhaps not as fully prepared as they could be.

But they did the right thing, they apologised, explained and offered some compensation for my trouble.

In every ongoing business relationship just like you have with Signature Electric, at some point something may go wrong. We can only hope that our past track record and the trust that has been set up will allow our customers to accept the odd glitch or error as part of dealing with human frailties.

I will certainly give Air Canada the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Yours for the long run,

Mark