An open letter to Air Canada

TL;DR: Not one but two late flights causing me to miss connections, and I've lost a day of my vacation (and a lecture I wanted to attend). Most of the Air Canada reps didn't seem to give a hoot about passengers. (Note: the flight crews are not included in that statement; they were fantastic. The rest of AC could learn from them.)

An open letter to Air Canada:


I am typing this letter from the Zurich airport, well past the time I should have been on the ground in Tel Aviv. I'm going to be here for a while, thanks to you.

When I went shopping for a ticket from Pittsburgh to Israel your web site offered me an itinerary connecting in Toronto. I wasn't sure how long that layover should need -- though note that you proposed the timing, not me -- so I called your office to ask. Your agent assured me that it was enough time, so I bought the ticket. The confirmation email told me that I would be able to check in online 24 hours in advance, as expected.

Those both turned out to be false. In the latter case, dare I say, a lie. When I tried to check in your online system told me that Pittsburgh is not one of the cities from which this is possible, a fact surely known to you when I bought the ticket. So there went an hour and twenty minutes of my life in a checkin line, at the end of which I was told that you could only give me the first boarding pass: I would need to stand in line again in Toronto. That's not what your agent on the phone said.

Despite all that I got to the gate with plenty of time to spare (because I'm like that), to find that you were now posting a half-hour delay. Your gate crew told me that I would still make my connection and not to worry.

That plane left an hour late. When we landed I ran, as well as I could in an unfamiliar airport with substandard signage and unhelpful personnel, and -- after clearing passport control and being forced to leave the secure area, I was in a long line at your gate. Most of the people from my Pittsburgh flight (with diverse connections) showed up there; mine wasn't the only questionable ticket you sold. There were also a bunch of people not from my flight, meaning this happened to more than one flight.

By the way, that thing you said in Pittsburgh about the delay being due to bad weather in Toronto? News to the random people I asked in Toronto. I disbelieve.

When I got to the head of the line (you did not offer to take people with the earliest connections first, and our attempts to self-organize the line that way were not very successful), you told me what I feared: that ship had sailed, so to speak. I would have to go to a different service counter and be rebooked. What about my bag that was checked through? Don't worry, you said.

That line, naturally, was also quite long, with familiar faces. The person next to me in line, from my flight, was also going to Israel; we traded what information we had and ended up at the counter (at adjacent spots) at the same time, so this continued. Both our agents told us there were no flights until the same time tomorrow; from the snippets I heard, he was looking into flying to Cleveland (too late to go back to Pittsburgh) or renting a car to get to an airport from which he could fly. Meanwhile, my agent told me that actually, tomorrow's flight is full and she could book me the following day. (That's pretty unreasonable IMO.) I pulled out all my saved-up diplomacy karma and asked my agent if there were perhaps a flight on some other airline, saying that while of course I understand their desire to rebook on their own carrier, surely there is some arrangement where airlines can help each other out when things beyond anyone's control go wrong? She began searching and eventually came up with a flight through Zurich that would get me to Israel about seven hours later than planned. I said to book it and, hearing that my compatriot had still not worked anything out nor been offered this, pointed it out to him. (My agent had to show his agent how to find it. He ultimately got onto the same flight.)

My agent -- who, I should mention, was the single bright point when it comes to your ground staff -- was able to issue me a boarding pass for the Toronto-to-Zurich flight, but not for the connection. She said I would need to collect my bag, go through customs, and check in at the Swiss Air counter. She also mentioned that the Swiss Air flight was a code-share with El Al (not sure which direction). We'll come back to that.

Um, about my bag? Where was it exactly? She sent me to yet another counter. At this counter a long line of people watched agent after agent leave and not return; the four who were there when I arrived rapidly dwindled to one. That one spent more than half an hour with one group of passengers. Eventually I learned that most people were there to be rebooked; I flagged down a passing person wearing an Air Canada badge, said all I needed was to get my baggage tags updated, and she said "actually I just did you; here's your claim ticket". Yay, and I was off, with just enough time to find something quick to eat since I doubted a 9PM flight would serve dinner and I'd last eaten at 11AM. If I'd had to wait through the rest of that line I would have been lucky to make my flight at all. (It turned out there was food and the flight attendant was even able to scare up a vegetarian meal for me. As I said, the flight attendants were not the problem.

Oh, abut that airport meal. I had to pay for that (exhorbitantly) and there wasn't time to be choosy -- I took the first vegetarian offering that didn't have a long line or require being seated at a restaurant. You never offered me a voucher. Actually, you never even apologized for any of this.

Boarding started a little late, and then we sat on the ground. And sat. We eventually took off an hour late. Air Canada, your motto should be: "we're always an hour late, but only on the first leg". My two-hour layover in Zurich was looking suspicious, but I'd used some of that time at the gate to Google for a map of the Zurich airport and I already knew the sequence was passport, bags, customs, ticket counter this time. And even though I'm not exactly fit and trim, I'm actually a pretty good sprinter.

It was all for naught. I got to the ticket counter 20 minutes before the departure time and they said too late, no boarding pass for you. The "they" here is Swiss Air, though, and the difference in how they treated me was pronounced. The agent apologized and directed me to a ticket counter, where a very helpful agent booked me on a 9PM flight to Israel after spending an inordinate amount of time reconstructing what Air Canada had done. (I gave her every piece of paper I had, but apparently there were things you were supposed to do and didn't involving ticket bookkeeping.) She gave me a meal voucher, to be billed to Air Canada, and said I could check my bag immediately even though the flight wouldn't leave for several hours. Alas, there's nothing interesting within walking distance of the airport and by this point I was feeling iffy about setting out on my own with a rail pass, though I understand normal people do this all the time.

I'm still trying to figure out how to contact my hotel to make sure they don't conclude I'm not coming. My phone doesn't seem to work here, nor does the Israeli phone I rented.
(I thought calling using the wireless network with my phone would work, like it does in Canada. Apparently I don't have a Skype app.) Once I bought wireless access I sent email; I hope that was good enough.

Air Canada, thanks to you I have lost a day of my vacation, spent hours standing in lines, and been treated anywhere from indifferently to rudely by your gate and ticketing agents (with that one exception). You have lied to me and then shrugged when things didn't work out. You have never once made even a token apology. You have done this to lots of other people too, not just me. Despite your actions I have been on my best behavior; I'm not the customer from hell here.

When I get to Israel I will attempt to track you down to speak with someone. I had hoped to do that on arrival, but it'll be 2AM so that probably won't work and I'll need to do it on the way back, if that's even possible. You could begin to mend some of the damage by upgrading my seat on my return trip, but really, I think this is going to require at least a partial refund. I don't often have the chance to go to Israel, and you ruined the first part of my trip.

I will make your response as public as I made my complaint. Fix this and all my friends and readers will know you came through.

A postscript from the gate: my new flight is also El Al, and it says right there on the boarding pass that they require gate checkin (and extra security check) two hours in advance. So this morning's flight was doomed from the start, but having never flown El Al, I didn't know that. And I don't see my fellow Pittsburgh-to-Israel traveller; I've no idea what happened to him.