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Rouge flight attendants will focus on individualized interactions with customers.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Envisioning a new corporate culture is one thing. Putting it into practice is a whole other challenge, as executives of Air Canada's new low-cost carrier Rouge are finding.

With the new, vacation-destination airline prepared to launch on July 1 with its initial flight to Kingston, Jamaica, Rouge executives say they are placing a new, greater emphasis on having flight attendants and staff engage more with customers.

"We have a unique opportunity," said Michael Friisdahl, Air Canada Rouge president and chief executive officer. "Because we're starting with a brand-new airline, we have the opportunity to create our culture from the get-go."

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However, an internal e-mail making the rounds raises a key issue. The e-mail, apparently from a concerned Air Canada gate agent, alleges that a group of newly hired Rouge flight attendants being flown to Orlando for customer-service training insisted on being upgraded in front of paying passengers.

The Air Canada employee found this behaviour unprofessional. Yet the e-mail points to a larger question of a divide between employees of mainline Air Canada and those who work for Rouge, exacerbated by the fact that Rouge flight attendants will be paid less. Indeed, Rouge executives are cultivating a different culture, one that's based on the needs of vacationers, as opposed to the more traditional service generally oriented toward business people and frequent fliers.

Rouge executives wouldn't confirm or comment on the apparent gate incident. Mr. Friisdahl would only say that whenever a major change is made within a company, of course it's going to receive a lot of scrutiny. "And that's true internally, as well as externally."

To differentiate itself from mainline Air Canada and other vacation carriers such as Air Transat, Mr. Friisdahl said Rouge flight attendants are receiving training at the Disney Institute and that the airline will focus on individualized interactions with customers.

"We have put a tremendous amount into the customer experience on board, particularly through our partnership with Disney, who are providing us with our customer-service training which takes place in Orlando," Mr. Friisdahl said.

Rouge doesn't plan to follow the more folksy approach of WestJet Airlines Ltd. and others, in which flight attendants sometimes tell jokes to passengers.

"It will be a very professional experience for our customers. We are not going to have comedians stand at the front and try to be funny. That's not what we want to be," Mr. Friisdahl said.

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"What that means is that with folks coming on board, chatting with them and learning a little bit about where they are going or why they are going," said Rouge vice-president Renee Smith-Valade.

Air Canada's chief executive Calin Rovinescu has also talked frequently about the need for larger cultural change within Air Canada as a whole. Yet the aim doesn't appear to be to use Rouge as a kind of incubator for larger corporate-culture changes throughout Air Canada.

"To that extent, we won't be better than Air Canada. We will simply be different than Air Canada, as it relates to the leisure experience that we are trying to create on board," Mr. Friisdahl said.

Still, the whole point of Rouge is to transform routes on which Air Canada doesn't make money and apply a discount model to those flights. Does that mean Rouge executives will be forced to curb their own executive expenses in ways that Air Canada doesn't?

"I would say that that is absolutely not true. I think Air Canada is extremely cost conscious … [And] Air Canada Rouge is very cost conscious. And we have to compete in a very competitive environment, and so does Air Canada," Mr. Friisdahl said. "We have a very strong mandate to be very competitive and reduce our costs wherever possible."

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