Friday, June 30, 2006

Air Canada doesn't give a damn - I, too, will fly WestJet.

Lately, the shared animosity between Air Canada and myself has finally come to a head. I say 'shared' because as of a few years ago, I think Air Canada set out to intentionally start to piss me off, and hasn't let up since. At first it was small things, but the cumulative experience of Air Canada treating me as a sucker has finally gotten to me.

And it's not just me. The very level-headed Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson has written an article entitled 'Air Canada doesn't give a damn. I'll fly WestJet'. In the interest of fairness, Montie Brewer the CEO of Air Canada wrote a response, entitled 'Air Canada does give a damn' but, of course he would.

(Note, if you're not a Globe and Mail subscriber - use this link to Google News to view the articles)

A little bit of background is in order. Before very recently taking a new job, I used to travel most of the time for work. I've visited more than a dozen countries and at least twice as many US states while traveling for the company. I know more than any sane man should about airlines, airports, and hotels. Walter Kirn's novel 'Up in the Air' reads more like a biography than a novel to me.

Now, Air Canada is no better and no worse than most North American airlines when it comes to general customer service/delays etc. However, given that I have accumulated in the multiple hundreds of thousands of Aeroplan miles over the years - their active distaste for customer loyalty and service is appalling. Every Canadian has experienced the wrath of their old and bitter, seniority-entrenched workforce. In five years, I have only once experienced truly excellent service from them, and unfortunately that's balanced against dozens of negative experiences.

Lately trying to use Aeroplan points has become a Kafka-esque exercise in frustration. Trying to use points at the cheapest level becomes a 3 or 4 layover sojourn across the country which surely uses more fuel than actual face value of the ticket, but is designed to make you give up and spend more points to only have to stop over once or twice (for a destination that is served by 4+ direct flights/day). For my last flight I used points to fly Executive class, and even then I had a layover in both directions.

My biggest complaint is 'upgrade certificates'. Air Canada sent me a thick stack of these for 'making status', then promptly told me to go f*** myself anytime I tried to actually use one. Seems my company has a policy of always flying on the cheapest flight, and these are ineligible for using certificates. Helpfully, the last time I tried to use one, the agent also told me that those cheaper flights (you may know them as 'Tango') don't even collect Aeroplan points, nor can you get food on the plane. So it turns out that this new policy pretty much means that I won't make 'status' next year because of this. So despite my very prolific flying with them over more than half a decade, Air Canada now feels I'm not good enough to garner any return incentive without paying at least double for my flights. Even colleagues at 'Elite' levels still have the same issue.

However, the last straw came this morning. I had booked a flight to Vancouver, and the Air Canada website popped up 'for an extra $30 you can upgrade to Tango Plus' which includes such benefits as 'upgrade to Executive Class with certificate'. Fantastic, I thought - I've got a book full of the damned things, I'll pay the extra money and finally get a chance to use one of them.

I called Air Canada, and guess what - I can't use my certificates.

You need to use Special System Wide Upgrade Certificates, the agent said. No problem - I've got some of those. No, you've got System Wide Upgrade Certificates - you need a Special System Wide Upgrade Certificate. Well, pardon me for confusing the two. Your website should've made clear that I need to use the aeronautical equivalent of Willy Wonka's golden ticket, instead of just saying 'you can use upgrade certificates' when you got me to shell out that extra money.

There is a word for that tactic - it's called 'bait and switch'. Enjoy that extra $30 bucks, you cheap bastards, because it will be your last. I'll be flying to Europe a few times on my points (it's hard to make you do multiple layovers over the Atlantic), then we're through.

WestJet - you've gained a new customer.