If you were unlucky enough to have been stranded at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport on Sunday, you likely had plenty of time to watch how not to manage a weather event.
The dog's breakfast of precipitation that turned snow into freezing rain into rain, paralyzing travel in much of Eastern Canada, had been forecasted for days. But it would have been asking too much of the airlines to plan ahead to ease passenger pain. That's not part of their new business model.
A customers-first airline would have added extra staff to help frustrated passengers navigate the endless delayed and cancelled flights, or flights that just disappeared from the departures screen with no explanation. Instead, travellers had to go to Air Canada's three-person customer service desk and wait in line for three hours to be put on a standby for a tentative flight at some tentative hour. Many did this twice.
At surrounding gates, idle Air Canada agents sat in twos, chatting. They had no passengers to deplane or board. But anyone brave enough to inquire about a disappeared flight's status – easily verifiable for any gate agent with a computer – got a stern look and was told to go wait in line.
Your ordeal did not end there, of course. It would take a book to recount all of the logistics failures, rudeness and plain bad planning you witnessed. You did encounter some truly dedicated staffers (Jacques, who manned the gate for AC 427, was heroic in his determination to help everyone) and pleasant cabin crew. But they only stood out because they broke the mould in an industry that has made customer suffering a business strategy.
This is a new Golden Age for North American airlines. Many have never been so profitable. But unlike during the original Golden Age, when every passenger was plied with free meals and cigarettes, airlines have figured out that their sustained profitability now requires tougher love.
Tim Wu, a clever Canadian-bred Columbia University law professor, describes the business strategy embraced by North American carriers as "calculated misery. Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it."
You could have avoided suffering at Trudeau had you been willing to fork out between $75 and $200 plus taxes and the difference in fare, before Saturday, to reschedule your trip. That's an expense many customers who lived through Sunday will likely decide to incur next time. Travelling is not always a choice, but airlines are betting that only the truly cheap or gluttons for punishment will refuse to pay extra to avoid torture.
Indeed, change fees and other so-called "ancillary" charges have become the pot of gold at the end of the runway. Ancillary income among airlines that publicly disclose such numbers totalled $31.5-billion (U.S.) in 2013, up from $2.5-billion in 2007. Getting economy class customers to cough up for checked luggage, extra leg room and seat selection – to avoid being crammed into the back of the plane among an extended family having a picnic – has made once bankrupt Air Canada an investor darling.
The "extra" legroom is really just the same amount of space you used to get for free. But by shrinking the standard pitch – or distance between rows – to 30 inches or less, airlines have plugged in to new ways to squeeze fees out of passengers with average inseams or pain thresholds.
Air Canada just reported its best quarter in its 77-year-history, and sliding fuel costs promise to make 2015 an even better year. Ticket prices haven't budged as airlines here use the excuse of a weaker loonie to refuse to pass on savings from cheap oil, which is priced in American dollars. And Ottawa won't do a thing about it.
"They are private companies," Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says. "They get to charge what they need to charge in a market condition."
Funny, that's not the Harper government's line when it comes to cellphone providers, cable companies or retailers charging more here than in the United States. There's far less competition on most airline routes. But the last thing Ottawa wants is to relive the airline dramas of the past, when Air Canada lurched from one near-death experience to another, and a federal bailouts loomed.
So, non-masochists will need to pay even more to lessen their misery.
Clarification: Earlier online versions and the print version of this column said travellers on Sunday could have avoided suffering had they paid a fee to reschedule. Air Canada said its customers could reschedule their travel without paying a fee under its waiver policy, which was put in place Saturday and Sunday for Montreal and other airports.