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Airline Industry

What on earth happened to good customer service in the airline industry? There was a time when flying was a pleasant experience and you were treated like royalty. The airlines would bend over backwards to keep customers happy. Today, the passion for customer service has been replaced by nickel and diming you for everything.

Some of you may remember Wardair. They made flying a good experience and were the model for excellent service. There was also Canadian Airlines. They were not as good as Wardair but they were better than Air Canada. Wardair was acquired by Canadian Airlines in 1989 and Canadian Airlines was acquired by Air Canada in 2000. The corporate wisdom back then was to acquire your competitors and shut them down rather than face them head on with better customer service. These days Air Canada claims to be number one in North America for customer service but that’s not saying much when the overall industry performance is so low.

Below are some examples of what good customer service used to be like in the airline industry and what it has become. People my age will remember how good it used to be. A younger person might think I am making it all up.

  • After you booked a flight, you could make a change at no cost. You could change to a different flight on the same day or a different day entirely. Canceling your ticket and getting a refund wasn’t a problem either. Today they charge you hundreds of dollars to make a simple change and if you cancel without buying insurance, you forfeit the cost of the ticket entirely. Then the airline sells your seat to someone else even though you paid for it already.
  • You could ask for a better seat with more leg room for example. Today you still can – for another $50 to $100 each way.
  • Checking your bags was free. Now it’s $25 each. (See my Air Canada story below.) Passengers have resorted to bringing carry-on baggage instead which has created a whole new set of problems when a plane is full of passengers.
  • Meals were always included on flights that took more than one hour. You even got a choice of hot meal, served on china with real cutlery. No such thing today. It’s mostly a cold menu and you pay for everything. However, they will gladly give you a tiny bag of peanuts for free.
  • Pillows and blankets were always available and automatically placed on every seat on longer flights. Today they are nowhere to be found and you must ask, and often pay for the comfort.
  • Headsets were free. Today you have to pay but it's better to bring your own.
  • If you were a regular flyer, you might get a free upgrade to a seat in business class if one was available. Good luck with that today. Rather than treat a loyal customer to a free upgrade, those seats remain empty.
One example of customer service abuse at the hands of Air Canada happened to my son in April 2012. He was finishing his final year of studying food and beverage management at George Brown College in Toronto and it culminated with a trip to visit wineries in Europe.

The college insisted that students bring business attire when visiting fine dining establishments. In addition to his suitcase, I told my son that he could borrow my garment bag to pack his suit so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. I drove my son to the airport and accompanied him to the Air Canada check-in. Much to my son’s horror (and me), Air Canada charged him $100 to check the garment bag! He had little choice but to pay this ransom. I told my son that when he packs for the return trip, he could jam everything into his suitcase and leave my garment bag in Europe. No point in spending another $100 to bring home an old garment bag that wasn’t even worth $10.

This is what it has come to in the airline industry. Greed has replaced good customer service. The Air Canada check-in clerk had this look of glee in his eyes having successfully nabbed someone who didn’t understand the luggage restrictions for this trip. There was no sympathy and no desire to help my son out of this predicament. My son worked hard and saved for this trip and Air Canada gouged him for another $100 before the plane got off the ground.

How did it get this way? This isn’t a uniquely Canadian problem. I have flown with U.S. airlines numerous times and they are worse. Customer service has deteriorated across the board for many reasons. High oil prices have put pressure on profits. Union attitudes are an ongoing problem. Bad management at the airlines doesn't help. The competition from no frills airlines is wreaking havoc.

The ultimate responsibility for poor customer service lies with the management at the airlines. Their bad decisions and incompetence always trickle down to employees who have been demoralized and marginalized. Customers ultimately suffer the consequences.

The disrespect and poor regard for customers has ruined this once elegant industry.

Addendum: April 2017

I have two additional tales to add since I first published this article, one good and one bad.

First the bad. In March of 2017 I spent three weeks in California. The first week was on business in Los Angeles and my wife joined me the second week for a conference and vacation in Palm Springs. Our two sons joined us for the third week in San Diego for a family vacation.

My wife and I flew into Los Angeles and we all returned home via San Diego. I like to take direct flights whenever possible and Air Canada Rouge was the only airline that offered a direct flight back to Toronto. My wife warned me that Rouge was a no-frills airline and boy was she right!

Air Canada Rouge offers low fares and makes up for it by reducing the seating space in economy class and increasing the number of seats they can sell. We were jammed in our seats like sardines! It was one of the most uncomfortable flights I have ever taken – and it was four and a half hours long. I’m only 5’ 10” and found it unbearable. My son is 6’ 2” and was terribly uncomfortable. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone even taller or overweight.

At least we only had to take the Rouge flight on the way home. Next time I go to San Diego I will fly to Los Angeles and drive the two extra hours to get there. No more flying Air Canada Rouge – ever.

Now the good. A month later I had to fly to Newark, New Jersey on business. I will fly with Porter Airlines every chance I get if they have a direct flight. Porter flies every hour to Newark out of the Toronto Island Airport.

Porter has a good reputation for customer service but they charge you extra for most things like every other airline. However, I wasn’t aware that you can change your flight to another time on the same day you are travelling at no extra cost. This is during an era where most airlines charge you $200 to make the simplest change to your flight.

On the way to Newark I arrived at the Toronto Island Airport early and the check-in agent asked if I wanted to take an earlier flight. I said sure and he even put me in a seat that had extra leg room! Totally unexpected.

On the way back to Toronto the same thing. I originally booked a mid-day flight because I didn’t know what my work schedule was going to be like that day. I woke up early that morning, got to the airport early and switched to an earlier flight. It’s always a bonus to get home earlier after being away on business.

Air Canada Rouge is another reminder of the airline industry gone sour. Porter Airlines is a refreshing change that gives us all hope.
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05/24/2019