Air Canada: never out of excuses

When I was entertaining the possibilities between the work contracts offered to me a few months ago I opted for a technical writing and development contract which involved business travel between Montreal and Toronto. Having “enjoyed” Air Canada’s service thrice in a week now, I have to say that I’m far from surprised that the airline is in such dire straits. In fact it’s positively surprising to see them out of bankruptcy.

Now, I’m not exactly green when it comes to air travel; I’ve flown several times between Montreal and New York, as well as to and from Europe. I’m not even unexperienced when it comes to flying Air Canada; in fact I’ve used that carrier probably more often than any other, mostly because AC was the only Canadian carrier to fly between Montreal and the Newark during my tenure in the US. US airlines would usually go to LaGuardia, which is a huge pain in the ass from the point of view of someone living in New Jersey.

Yes, there were inevitable delays; I think the only time I’ve ever had an Air Canada flight which was actually on time and without complications was the first return flight I took after September 11th. When it came to flying between Montreal and Newark the excuse for delays was invariably that the same two planes were used to shuttle between the locations all day, and that if there was a delay earlier in the day it would impact the whole day’s schedule. Since I always flew in the evenings there was little chance of the plane being on time.

However, it just doesn’t seem that this would apply to flights shuttling between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Ottawa aside, Montreal and Toronto are the two biggest Air Canada hubs. The company has expansive facilities in both places, and my flights all used Airbus 320 aircrafts, which is AC’s main airplane. So why the hell have there still been delays in all three flights I’ve taken so far?

Leaving Montreal Thursday January 13th, 0700: surprisingly enough the plane boarded and took off relatively on time. The flight was pretty uneventful though crowded. We landed with no problem. However once at Pearson we were told that there would be a delay because no gate was available. So we waited… 30 minutes! Now if you think it’s frustrating to sit on the tarmac before leaving for your destination, try it while you’ve already arrived, and feel your appointed meeting time slipping by. And then there are the vibrations of the airplane putting you to sleep, when you’re supposed to be sharp and collected and ready to go. All great fun. Because gates are traditionally assigned by airline it’s clear that our delay is caused by another delay in an Air Canada flight. Fun, fun, fun.

Leaving Toronto, Friday January 14th, 1900: boarding took place slightly later than expected. The flight was full as expected (it WAS a Friday evening after all). I and other passengers couldn’t help noticing that the cockpit door was open and that the pilots were nowhere to be seen, and there was a good reason for that — the pilots weren’t on the plane yet. In fact I’m not sure the pilots were at the airport when we began boarding. There was a delay of approximately 20 minutes before they came on board, and the delay was lengthened by another 20 minutes while they settled in and went through their pre-flight tests, which means that the delay was actually longer than the 36-minute flight between Toronto and Ottawa. I wouldn’t be surprised if this caused some other airplane to have to sit on the tarmac while waiting for the gate to free up.

Leaving Ottawa, Sunday January 16th, 2200: this was the flight I actually expected to be on time, and it nearly was, because it was the only flight taking off within a one-hour window at Ottawa International Airport… and it still took off late because of de-icing procedures. Boarding could have taken place at the time specified on my ticket, but I think that would be against Air Canada policy. Still, we were only 10 minutes late at this point, so no big deal, right? Well, it would have been, were it not for the 40-minute wait for luggage once we had landed at Pearson. That’s 40 minutes of people standing by the baggage carousel for their bags to arrive. Of course by this time people are getting antsy, swearing under their breaths, and at least some of the passengers had already taken the initiative of complaining to the ground staff, with all the expected effect that this had. Again, the delay — this time, the delay occurring after the deplaning had already occurred — was longer than the actual flight.

This is, as one can see, fairly pathetic. Air Canada seems to be chronically unable to deliver people to their destinations on time, no matter what the day, time, crowding, or destination. Nor are they apparently willing to invest the time and energy to try and improve the situation, it would seem. It’s not that they don’t have the money: they’re spending millions hiring Celine Dion as a spokesperson, rebranding their aircraft, and flooding the airwaves with TV commercials. It seems to me that at least part of this money would be much better spent getting their passengers where they’re going within the timeframe which they promise. That would make for far better publicity than having slick TV ads featuring Canada’s biggest diva, don’t you think?