Air Canada should improve customer service

May 14 2013 by Ellen Roseman

I don’t have any complaints about the service on Air Canada flights. But I find the airline often falls short in trying to resolve problems that crop up after a flight.

Years ago, my mother and I waited more than two hours to get our baggage after a one-hour flight from Montreal to Toronto. The aircraft had gone back to the hangar by mistake with many suitcases still on board.

When we complained about the extra cost of parking for my husband who was picking us up, we were told to write a letter to Montreal. This was a nuisance. Why couldn’t Air Canada just hand out $5 or $10 gift cards to us on the spot?

I went to the trouble of writing to Montreal, but still didn’t get any compensation for the error. Then, I complained to the airline’s media contact, resulting in flowers for my mother and Aeroplan points for me.

Air Canada still acts like a monopoly — smug, slow to respond and aiming for customer satisfaction rather than delight. It can afford to live with criticism, since it has locked up many long-haul routes that its domestic rivals can’t offer.

While most companies answer emails within days. Air Canada promises to respond within three to five weeks.

Lost baggage complaints are handled by a call centre in India, which isn’t popular with Canadian customers. Check out Sylvia Duckworth’s lament about her missing laptop at her blog.

After writing columns about Air Canada, I started hearing from readers. Kay-Anne, for example, was upset not to get an apology for poor service when flying home from Antarctica, with a stop in Chile.

“Each time, any response from them came in an envelope with a return address from their head office for customer service in Calgary,” she said.

“My husband and I were so displeased with the lack of satisfaction that when we were next in Calgary, visiting our son, we went to the address listed on the correspondence. We hoped to speak to an actual person, who might at least acknowledge that the company had failed our small group miserably.

“We had great difficulty finding the address and drove by where it should have been several times. Finally, I went into the pharmacy, which seemed to be at the correct address and asked where Air Canada’s customer service office was.

“The lady sheepishly told me I was at the right place. Air Canada Customer Service is a post office box number in a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Calgary.

“You can interpret from our experience and those of others you have written about that Air Canada, in fact, provides no support to customers with genuine concerns.”

WestJet has built its business on showing special care to its “guests.” (No one refers to them as customers.) I rarely get any WestJet complaints and when I do, I find they’re resolved in an instant.

Porter Airlines tries to excel by offering free snacks and cappuccino at its Toronto Island terminal and free wine on board. Passengers feel pampered finding leather seats throughout the plane, not just in . executive class.

Air Canada needs to respond to complaints more quickly. It needs to value its customers’ energy and time spent straightening out messes. It needs to appoint an ombudsman (a position that once existed and was wiped out) to do independent reviews of disputes.

This large airline is protected from domestic competition on many routes. Let’s put pressure on it to choose excellence, rather than mediocrity, in helping customers with their problems.

1 comment

  1. Ellen Roseman

    May 15 2013

    I wrote a column in 2002 about my experience trying to get Air Canada to address its mistake.

    Publication: Toronto Star
    Day: Saturday
    Date: 12/14/2002
    Section: Business
    Headline: How complaints fly at Air Canada

    When it comes to customer service, Air Canada still has a way to go to reach the starting gate.

    That’s my conclusion after a personal experience revealed gaps in the airline’s complaint-handling system.

    Air Canada not only denied my request for compensation, but made me feel as though I wasn’t respected or valued as a customer.

    My mother and I flew to Montreal in mid-September for a few days. We arrived back in Toronto on a quiet Saturday evening around 6 p.m.

    We waited for our bags, and waited, and waited. It was obvious something was wrong.

    At 6.30 p.m., we were told Air Canada had unloaded the priority bags (those connecting to other flights) and overlooked the rest.

    Our bags were still on the airplane, which had gone to the hangar at Pearson International Airport.

    By 7.30 p.m., when our bags hadn’t turned up (we kept hearing messages that they were expected shortly), I went to the baggage counter to ask about getting a $5 voucher to buy a snack or $10 to cover the extra parking cost at the airport.

    The staff seemed frustrated and said their hands were tied.

    “You have to write to Air Canada’s baggage claims office in Montreal,” an employee said. “Here’s a card with the address.”

    At 8 p.m., our bags finally hit the conveyor belt. We had waited two hours, twice as long as the duration of the flight. We were tired and hungry and annoyed at the inconvenience.

    Now, I think I write a pretty good complaint letter. Using plain paper with no letterhead, I explained what went wrong with the baggage and Air Canada’s admission of error.

    I said I was a loyal customer and Aeroplan member, travelling with an elderly person whose dinner was delayed until 8.30 p.m., and I felt Air Canada staff should be empowered to offer compensation on the spot.

    My letter fell on deaf ears.

    Baggage claims specialist Genevieve Mallett apologized “for the lapse in our service,” but said nothing about what went wrong on my flight and she offered nothing – other than the assurance that my comments would provide valuable information to the executive management team.

    This didn’t sit well with me. So I called Air Canada’s media relations department, which passed along my correspondence to customer service director Sara Crockett. She said the handling of this complaint fell short of the company’s self-imposed service standards:

    – If there’s a baggage delay, Air Canada normally allows customers to leave and sends their bags later by taxi. We weren’t offered the option.

    – Customers who choose to wait for their bags at the airport are provided with a snack voucher so they can get something to eat. Again, this didn’t happen.

    – Someone who complains can expect an acknowledgement within seven days of receipt of the letter and a resolution within 60 days. My letter was sent on Oct. 1, was acknowledged on Oct. 18 (too long a wait) and “resolved” on Oct. 23.

    – Air Canada reviews each complaint thoroughly and investigates what caused the problem. But no one checked into the cause of our baggage delay.

    Crockett still doesn’t know why the airplane went to the hangar with our bags on board. She said she has never heard of an occurrence of this kind.

    The baggage claims office brushed off our complaint, because it’s used to hearing about personal belongings that are lost or damaged or sent astray for days.

    Our bags arrived on the same plane as we did, so what was the issue?

    Compensation is definitely in order, said Cheryl O’Brian, an Air Canada customer solutions representative.

    “At that time of day, a delay of two hours feels like five hours.”

    She offered me a choice of 2,500 Aeroplan miles or a $50 voucher for future travel, good for one year and transferable to others. And, because my mother didn’t travel often, would she like a gift basket?

    The good news: O’Brian will hunt down and compensate all other passengers who were inconvenienced on the same Montreal-to-Toronto flight on Sept. 14. (No one else had bothered to complain.)

    I advise customers to read Air Canada’s customer service plan. It’s on the Web site, http://www.aircanada.ca, or available from airline staff.

    Don’t take no for an answer. Send a follow-up letter to Customer Solutions, P.O. Box 64239, Thorncliffe Outlet, 5512-4th St. NW, Calgary, Alta. T2K 6J0; or fax 1-866-584-0380.

    Escalate to the Air Canada ombudsman, Michelle Perreault-Ieraci, P.O. Box 3000, Station Airport, Dorval, Que. H4Y 1K3; or fax 1-888-756-5221. She’s been on the job two years and has her own Web site (www.ombudsman.aircanada.ca) with copies of her annual reports.

    If still unhappy, write to the Air Travel Complaints Commissioner, Canadian Transport Agency, Ottawa, Ont., K1A 0N9; fax 819-953-5686. You can also file complaints at http://www.cta-otc.gc.ca over the Internet.

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    Update: The ombudsman no longer exists. Neither does the Calgary office, which is just a post office box.

    The Canadian Transportation Agency handles air travel complaints by pasasengers, but doesn’t address issues of customer service:

    https://www.otc-cta.gc.ca/eng/air-disputes

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