Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Treasonous Feelings on Air Travel

I love travel—really I do. However, I can’t help notice the huge amount of stress I’m under trying to jump through all the hoops that airlines have for us these days.

Come on, people! The 9/11 excuse is getting really old. Especially when it has nothing to do with the service you are providing. I understand that check in will take longer and burden of proof is now normal carry-on while crossing any border, but airlines should be enhancing communication and customer service in order to deal with this, not making it worse.

Today’s anecdote comes to us from the lovely Air Canada (AC), who in my opinion is the poster child for bad service in International Airlines, with their grumpy, frumpy, battle-worn attendants both at the desk and in flight.

After having a ticket issued by United Airlines (the ticket was paid for through another airline, but airlines often swap out the flight, I was told that it was best to call AC to reserve the seats. As soon as I presented myself as coming from a United booking, they told me that I had to contact United to book seats on their airline. After a moment of explaining how silly that was (because United was simply going to phone them and do it themselves) they capitulated and glory be, actually said they'd book me a seat on the flight I had already reserved. I asked for exit row seats.

“Those are Airport Handling Priority.”

“Does that mean yes or no?”, I asked wondering if I had missed the manual on how to book a seat lingo. I continued on fumbling through the process. (I rarely fly Air Canada after they made my life hell so many times before--see below).

While waiting for the seats to be booked, there was no response. You know, the usual, 'arrive at the airport seven hours before you leave, naked and shaven in order to begin security debriefing. Sensing something was awry, I asked what exactly I would be expected to do when I arrived at the airport.

The attendant listened to me as if I was stupid and sardonically replied, “Check in, sir.”

Okay, I told her, so I would simply show up with my passport and a printed copy of my itinerary.

Whoa, wait a moment! Things began to take on a more hillbilly feel. "Ain’t nobody getting on an Air Canada flight without a printed email copy of their ticket", she said.

“But, United said…” I protested, not sure of whose fault it was. No, no, no, I was told, you need to have a mailed copy of my receipt and itinerary printed from United before I did anything.

"So what is the point of an ‘e-ticket’ then?" I wondered aloud, "I thought the point was to email it to you, if United was going to mail me something, why not just mail mea printed ticket?", I asked. There was no answer.

Next it was a game of semantics. “So who do I have to see to get a ticket issued so I can get on the plane?” I asked, timidly.

“The ticket is issued, sir” was the clipped reply.

“Okay, so why can’t I get on the plane then?” It's fun... like a puzzle.

“You need a ticket sir.”

“So where do I go to get a ticket printed?”, I asked steering clear of the dirty word ‘issued’.

"United prints the ticket for you."

"Okay, but they’ve sent me an email with my receipt and itinerary", I said. Had no one ever done this before?

Here is where I got angry. If United dealt with the tickets, you mean I would be checking in with United? So I wouldn’t actually need to deal with Air Canada? So why was she telling me that I needed all these mailed, stamped documents. Why didn’t she just say, ‘go to United they will help you?’ Perhaps it was an admission she didn't want to make.

Anyhow, I called United and thoroughly confused the poor woman on the phone with my story. She apologized and said she didn’t know why Air Canada was reacted like this. Then she gave the punch line: “I’m sorry sir, your Air Canada seats don’t seem to be reserved.” “But I just booked them”, I protested, “maybe the system hasn’t updated.”

“The system updates immediately sir.”

“So Air Canada didn’t actually book my seats?”

“No, sir, but since you are having problems with Air Canada, I can do it for you.” Bang, my seats were booked. She also booked my seats for my connecting flight. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Next was the e-ticket fiasco. “Simply drop into the United counter and we will issue you a paper ticket. Oh, so 'paper' was the magic word I had to use with AC to find out what to do. Must have missed that when I was studying up for the seat booking test.

Again, more mixed feelings, compounded with an compulsion that I wanted to something really bad to Air Canada. Like try to check in naked just to see if they had a regulation banning clothesless people on board ("The regulation says you must be properly dressed." Aha, but I bet it doesn't say anything about being 'properly undressed'! Are you making insinuations about my lifestyle? I thought Canadians were tolerant! Then after raving naked for awhile, I'd put on a track suit and they'd still have to let me on. But I digress.)

This is definitely the last time I fly Air Canada. If the ticket wasn’t free in the first place, I’d probably be a lot more angry than I am right now. Here’s a couple other incidences on Air Canada:

It was AC attendants who told a delegation of 31 Beijing officials I was overseeing that ‘no one was getting on the flights with bags packed like this’ and in masochistic schoolteacher fashion made the government folk stoop down and repack right there in the airport. They wouldn’t even listen to their pleas that they would pay extra. I can tell you that heavy-handed moves like this cost Air Canada, because the Chinese took this as racism. And it cost Canada too, not only in flights (because these Gov’t officials swore to never use the airline again), but it also cost Canadian Universities some badly needed income because it influenced future programs.

It was also AC who smashed my carry on bag to death after I leant it to my mother to take to Hawaii. I have taken this on no less than 16 flights on several different airlines and never had a problem. ( Also note that most airlines, like Air Canada and United have the same carry on requirements.) Now before you say I was luck, even after my mother went and got the floor supervisor who agreed with her that it was no problem, (she had her slip it in those chrome test brackets to see if it was the right size; it slips in and out nicely) the Air Canada attendant smashed it around in front of her, banging it through the scanning machine. Both her and the supervisor were flabbergasted.

Air Canada also seized my carry on as I got on to the plane to make a connecting flight from Chicago to Toronto. Saying that it was too heavy, when I protested that I had my passport and documents inside, the flight attendant said threateningly, “If there is any problem, I’ll have to ask you to leave the plane immediately.” I remember standing at the luggage return in Pearson wondering if my laptop, passport, and other things would make it out okay.

I hate Air Canada. I just hope I get to Taiwan in one piece.

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