My mother was an intensely proud Canadian who retained the Maritime warmth and sensibilities she acquired growing up in New Brunswick, even after moving to Ontario. In addition to her love for dulse, she was a loyalist to Her Majesty the Queen, had a fondness for clothing with Canadian emblems, and always wore a poppy on Remembrance Day. Don Cherry would have adored her.
As proud a Canadian as she was, even my mother was amused by the obedience and respect for authority Canadians had in her day. Her favorite joke, one that always made her laugh with the same vigor when first hearing it, was this:
How do you instantly clear a swimming pool filled with 250 Canadians?
“Everyone, please exit the pool.”
Canada has changed considerably since my mother died nearly 20 years ago. It’s more diverse, more urban, its population is aging, and fatal police interactions are up substantially. As for respect and fear of the law, hit and run accidents are common in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and other cities. Basketball quite possibly could overtake hockey as Canada’s most popular sport.
But one Canadian trait has remained intact: Tolerance of mediocrity and a willingness to get screwed.
I had considerable time to reflect on my native country these past few weeks trying to resolve an Air Canada reservation issue that was the airline’s doing. Even airlines of some Third World countries have the technology to easily rectify my sort of problem. Unfortunately, none of them fly non-stop from Los Angeles to Toronto. Air Canada has the route pretty much to itself.
The great management minds at Air Canada thought the holiday season was an ideal time to begin an ambitious migration to a new reservation platform. How ambitious? Company CEO Calin Rovinescu characterized the complexity of the project as being the IT equivalent of a “heart and lung” transplant. I’m being awfully Canadian in simply saying the patient didn’t do well, and only in recent days emerged from intensive care.
For weeks after the project began November 18, countless Air Canada customers in 222 cities on six continents were frantically roaming airports trying to resolve cancelled flights, missed connections, and lost luggage. Others, like me, wasted hours futilely trying to get a customer support person on the phone. Some 88 Air Canada passengers last week were treated to unexpected nights in Anchorage and Vancouver, when they thought they were headed to Whitehorse. There were reports of Air Canada emailing travel itineraries to the wrong customers.
Air Canada’s PR people insisted all was going as planned, so someone clearly forgot to tell the airline’s customer support people they’d be experiencing “unusually heavy call volumes.” For weeks, Air Canada was so overwhelmed with calls, it had to stop taking them. I heard the advisory recording from Air Canada’s head of worldwide customer service so many times that I now speak English with a French-Canadian accent.
My sister’s experience is an example of the travel nightmares Air Canada passengers experienced around the world. She flew from Phnom Penh to Seoul to catch a flight to Vancouver; Air Canada was too busy to notify her the Vancouver flight was delayed more than three hours, which caused her to miss her connecting Toronto flight. She learned about her delayed flight from TripCase, not Air Canada. (Hey TripCase, here’s your slogan for the Canadian market: “We Know More About Air Canada Than Air Canada.”) Said my sister: “There were lots of angry people at the airport.”
A former client posted online that when he arrived at Washington Dulles on a flight from Montreal, he discovered all gate-checked bags were still in La Belle Province. He overheard the pilot tell the gate agent this happened before from Gate 82. (Take note, Dorval travelers!) The outsourced lost baggage agent first learned about the issue from my former client, not Air Canada.
Sean O’Shea, a reporter with Global News, was one of the few Canadian journalists aggressively reporting about Air Canada’s IT debacle, which is understandable given his experience exposing organized crime figures and disreputable businesses. Air Canada seems to fear him, as no one from the company agreed to be interviewed on camera.
Here’s one of O’Shea’s multiple reports featuring inconvenienced Air Canada customers.
Air Canada is constitutionally obligated to communicate in Canada’s two official languages, but the company’s management was too tongue tied to speak in either of them. Rovinescu, Air Canada’s CEO, understandably may be focused on his acceptance speech for his induction next year into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. But it seemed reasonable to expect Catherine Dyer, Air Canada’s chief information officer, to step on the rink and offer some insight as to what was going on, just as she did when she oversaw WestJet’s troubled reservation system conversion a decade ago.
Despite all the chaos and disruption Air Canada caused, many Canadians maintained their remarkably glass-is-half-full outlook, even in remote places where the glass contents were likely frozen. Take Thea Rogers for instance.
Rogers was among 88 passengers who boarded a Whitehorse bound flight in Vancouver last Monday but were diverted without explanation to Anchorage, where passengers spent the night. They took off the next day for Whitehorse but were diverted to Vancouver where they spent the night in that city. It wasn’t till Wednesday evening that Air Canada was able to get all the passengers to Whitehorse.
Rogers, and other passengers quoted by Canada’s CBC network, said Air Canada did a very poor job keeping them informed; Rogers said an Anchorage cab driver knew more about what was going on than Air Canada. Air Canada blamed the weather, although the CBC quoted the owner of a small airline saying his planes were able to land in Whitehorse because they have GPS. I guess Air Canada skimps on the navigation option when ordering its planes.
Was Rogers angered by Air Canada’s handling of her travel nightmare?
“This is an inconvenience, but nobody has been out in the cold,” she said.
Then there’s the Calgary IT recruiter who chastised passengers for trashing Air Canada because of the problems the airline caused them.
“Love the complaints…No understanding of how these systems or implementations work, no understanding of the parts that have to line up,” the recruiter commented on my Air Canada LinkedIn post. “We have a “me me me” thing going on with no considerations at all.” The recruiter said it’s wrong to trash Air Canada just because of its IT problem.
For the record, my disdain for Air Canada is deeply rooted and dates back to the days when it was a Crown Corporation. The airline still has a civil service feel to it, and I liken its in-flight experience as a visit to Motor Vehicles at 35,000 ft. As for my lack of understanding for Air Canada’s problems, the airline has never shown me any understanding or compassion when I’ve had unforeseen issues.
I admire Rogers and the IT consultant for their positive and sympathetic attitude. Regretfully, a lack of public outrage is the reason Air Canada’s management felt no obligation to account for what happened and give customers a sense of the disruption’s duration. It’s also the reason why Marc Garneau, Canada’s transport minister, couldn’t be bothered to get involved.
While things seem to have returned to normal, my understanding is that Air Canada has only completed Phase One of its conversion to the Altea platform developed by a Madrid-based company called Amadeus. Southwest Airlines experienced at least five outages migrating to the Altea platform, though its president was on record saying, “This is not something we’re casually taking and saying, ‘Oh it will be fine. Don’t worry about it.’” It wouldn’t surprise me if Air Canada deemed spring break an ideal time to begin Phase 2 of the conversion.
Air Canada customers should know that an Israeli hacker and activist earlier this year reported a major security breach with the Altea platform. They should also know that a glitch with the Altea platform was responsible for grounding airplanes around the world two years ago.
Air Canada isn’t the only monopoly harming Canadians. Canada’s banks are getting away charging fees that are outright obscene. My Canadian bank charges more than $100 to do a wire transfer to the U.S. and works at a snail’s pace to complete the transaction. Fidelity in the U.S. allows its customers to wire money back and forth to Canada in real time and at no cost.
My contact at my Canadian bank takes days to return my call, if she returns it at all. I recently called the 800 number and was routed to someone in Chile, who didn’t speak fluent enough English to understand my issue. Fidelity offers 24/7 customer support with exceptionally well-trained people based in the U.S. (If someone might know a Canadian bank branch that answers its phones or returns calls, please send me a private email).
An astute U.S. financial services executive I follow on LinkedIn who has done extensive business in Canada observed last week that Canada’s wealth management industry is perpetually 5- to 10-years behind the U.S. in innovation because of regulations that favor the banks at the expense of consumers.
And, of course, there is the Canadian government’s $1 billion Phoenix boondoggle, an IT debacle the magnitude of which I thought only possible in corrupt banana republics. The Canadian public doesn’t know about it because the Canadian media doesn’t write about it.
Fortunately for me, my Air Canada situation has been resolved, at least for now. Last Sunday at 10:30 California time I called the airline’s customer support number. This time I was told I could wait, but it would take more than an hour for someone to get to me. Air Canada didn’t disappoint, but to my surprise, someone eventually came on the line.
The agent was a delightful young woman named Melissa, who I imagine thought me a bit odd calling her my BFF and repeatedly blessing her and her family. There was a certain warmth and inimitable charm about Melissa, and she graciously confirmed my suspicion. Melissa was based in Saint John, the New Brunswick city where my mother was raised.
Given Melissa’s youth, I was heartened that perhaps New Brunswick remains a pristine oasis of niceness, untouched by the negative influences of Facebook and Twitter and oblivious to the incivility that’s overtaken the rest of the world.
I’d so love to go visit and find out. Unfortunately, I’d have to fly Air Canada to get there.