I'm flying overseas next week. There was a time, now a distant memory, when I would have looked forward to a trip like this – to my momentary membership in the jet set, to the smart and sophisticated seatmates I'd converse with, to the perky flight attendants at my beck and call.
Now, I'm filled with dread and foreboding that I'm in for yet another flight from hell. I became a frequent flyer a few years back, whisking through North American and European airport terminals at a rate that allows me to make reasonably informed comparisons. And while "customer experience" has been elevated to a religion in many service industries these days, modern air travel makes the Book of Job look like a fairy tale.
It's bad enough to start out facing the unpalatable choice of congestion and a $50 cab ride (from downtown Toronto, ex tips) or the self-flagellation of lugging one's bags to the airport on public transit. Either way, it's painful. You'd think airline staff might have an inkling of what you go through before you even arrive, and show a bit of empathy. But what you get often resembles a public lashing.
I regularly witness staff berating hapless passengers like schoolchildren. Unwitting souls, shocked to learn they've been bumped from their flights or arrived a few minutes too late to check in, are treated with utter contempt. The same goes when a passenger has the audacity to inquire about delays that doom them to miss connecting flights, ruining vacations or business trips.
Of course, every airline has some outstanding employees who are unfailingly courteous and helpful. But they're harder and harder to come by. Rule No. 1 in the airline industry seems to be: If it's your fault, prepare to pay; if it's the airline's fault, don't expect contrition, much less reasonable compensation, unless you publicly embarrass the carrier.
It's a battle of wits and only the most petulant customers are ever likely to prevail. Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman was one of them. The virtuoso, who has a disability, got a fawning apology from Air Canada after he went to the media complaining of being abandoned with his bags, crutches and instrument on arriving at Toronto's Pearson Airport this month. "I think a good first step would be an outreach from the the CEO or president of Air Canada," Mr. Perlman's agent told The Globe and Mail.
Few of us could ever hope for that much. Luckily, we've got YouTube. B.C. resident Dwayne Stewart created a viral sensation this month with his video of Air Canada baggage handlers dropping carry-on luggage into bins more than three metres below. "Ever wonder what happens to your bags when you leave them at the aircraft door?" Mr. Stewart asked. Now you know.
And what about poor Larry the greyhound, rest his soul, who slipped his collar between flights at San Francisco International last fall and never made it to his new home in Campbell River, B.C? When a reporter at a nearby CBS affiliate asked Air Canada to comment, a PR official accidentally sent her an internal e-mail that read: "I think I would just ignore. It is local news doing a story on a lost dog. Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the U.S. media spends its time."
Air Canada doesn't have a monopoly on snarkiness – just this month, a U.S. Airways employee responded to a disgruntled customer with a pornographic tweet – but it certainly gives its competitors a run for their money. I've been pistol-whipped, figuratively speaking, more often than I care to remember. While booking a flight to San Diego last fall, I noticed a schedule discrepancy between Air Canada's website and Expedia. An Air Canada agent insisted that the carrier's site was right, and even threatened to hang up on me when I pressed her to verify. She didn't, and weeks later I got an e-mail from Air Canada informing me of a scheduling change that proved Expedia correct. But there was no offer to reschedule my flight without paying a change fee.
Air Canada never sends out a press release these days without reminding us that it's been named the Best Airline in North America four years running in a voluntary passenger survey by British-based Skytrax. No one asked my opinion and I doubt anyone asked yours, either. If Air Canada ranks higher than its U.S. counterparts, it's probably because Americans are more demanding. They expect good service; we don't.
Canadians suck it up. Most of us are too nice or too busy to lodge official complaints, well aware of the black hole where our grievances usually end up. Just 554 airline customers formally complained to the Canadian Transportation Agency in 2012-13, which is a rounding error amid the millions of flights we take every year. But that's not hard to understand. Who but a masochist with time to kill would want to endlessly relive a horrible flight experience during a bureaucrat-driven complaint adjudication process?
No, I'm not looking forward to my trip. Apparently, it's on a new "high-density" Boeing 777 that is configured to seat 458 passengers, up from 359. It's not enough that the airlines make economy passengers endure the walk of shame through business class. They now make us suffer in even narrower seats with less spacing between rows. Pretty soon, even elbow rests will cost you extra. And that's not even a joke.