Air Canada’s check-in crackdown needs fixing

06 Aug

air-canadaI’m on vacation this week – camping in West Virginia – and the wife and I decided to drive. Why? Because flying is hell.

As a recent feature in Macleans detailed, not only is it getting more expensive to fly, it’s also taking longer. Airlines in Canada and the United States are in full-scale monetization mode, meaning they’re adding all kinds of new fees on top of steady price hikes. And, as I discovered on a trip last week to Washington D.C., they’re forcing passengers to get to the airport even earlier, meaning that trips are taking even longer overall. For relatively shorter trips, it’s becoming much more desirable to simply take the car.

Air Canada is a particular standout in this regard. Suffering from one of the industry’s highest tardiness rates – only 60 per cent of its flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled times in 2012 – the airline has instituted a new zero-tolerance policy for late-arriving passengers. Customers traveling within Canada must now arrive for check-in within 45 minutes of their flight, rather than 30 minutes. Those going to the U.S., as I was, have 60 minutes.

There isn’t any flexibility with these edicts, if my experience was any indicator.

I’m a frequent traveler and have a Nexus card, which allows me to breeze through customs and security. It usually takes five to 10 minutes, tops. I also avoid checking luggage at all costs, since doing so often adds to wait times on arrival (my Toronto record is about 70 minutes), not to mention the inevitable fee for doing so.

On my trip last week, I arrived 55 minutes before my flight, only to find that I couldn’t get a boarding pass. The customer service agent was adamant about not giving me one – she said it was impossible to do because the system locked down at the one-hour point. She was downright rude, almost indignant that I had the audacity to show up five minutes after the cut-off. I ended up having to re-book onto a later flight, with a $79 fee to boot.

Here’s the funny part: I zoomed through customs and security as expected and made it to the gate of the original flight in plenty of time for boarding. I asked the agent there if she could put me back on the flight and she did, with a smile. So much for the “impossibility” of a locked-down system.

The whole situation could have been avoided if I had been able to get a boarding pass ahead of time, either printed out at home or on my phone. Washington is on the list of U.S. cities that such passes are available for, so what was the problem? Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick tells me “it could have been another type of IT issue,” but I almost wondered if it was another monetization attempt. Not giving passengers advance boarding passes – and from what I’ve seen, it’s a total crapshoot as to whether you get one or not – is a good way to either get them there early, or to miss the cut-offs, in which case they have to pay re-booking fees.

Air Canada says the check-in crackdown is an effort to improve on that woeful on-time arrival rate, and it indeed appears to be working. The airline says its rate improved to 80 per cent in May. That’s great because it avoids delays, but it also brings up two other big, new issues to deal with.

One is the issue of flexibility with those who are obviously prepared frequent travelers, and more importantly, the fixing of those “IT issues” so that passengers can get their boarding passes ahead of time. It’s counter-productive, at least from a business standpoint, for an airline to improve arrival performance if it is angering and alienating its best customers in the process. It would be nice to see a little humanity and some better technology to go with that newfound focus on timeliness.


Posted by on August 6, 2013 in airline


5 responses to “Air Canada’s check-in crackdown needs fixing

  1. trixxiii

    August 6, 2013 at 12:08 am

    did u get a refund of the $79. ? makes me happy im not one for travelling.:}

    • Peter Nowak

      August 6, 2013 at 12:19 am

      Not as of yet. I’m not holding out too much hope for it happening.

  2. George Geczy

    August 6, 2013 at 12:12 am

    Many years ago, I was one of the first people to try an “e-ticket” instead of the traditional red-carboned airline tickets of yore… that turned out to be an utter nightmare, mostly because of how rudely Air Canada treated me when they didn’t know what they were doing or how to handle this new-fangled tech. I haven’t seen much improvement from them in all the years since.

  3. Marc Venot

    August 6, 2013 at 12:26 am

    As you have seen in the news the rail companies are following suit in the “security” fad. If you (or more precisely a company) can afford it makes using a private jet more VIP.

  4. Jean-François Mezei

    August 6, 2013 at 12:34 am

    With on-line check in via the web, you can usually bypass the “atilla the hun” agents at check in and proceed to the gate right away.

    In some stations such as Washington’s DCA, you can’t get a boarding pass when you do the early check in via Web, you need to get to the check in and either use te machines to get your boarding pass and deal with the check in atilla the huns.

    The problem with late flights isn’t due to passengers, it is due to Air Canada’s schedule which is so focused on Toronto that any weather in Toronto delays flights all over Canada and AC is unable to cope with number of disruptions which cascade. If a plane was due to do Winnipeg-Toronto, then Toronto-Montreal then Montreal-Calgary, AC should get it to do Winnipeg-Monttreal and then Mottreal-Canagary instead of cancelling all flights because Toronto is shut down.

    This need williness to be flexible and have smart software to allow such fleet flexibility. One problem is that iif AC takes Winnipeg-Toronto passengers and brings them to Montreal, then AC has to pay their hotel until they can be flown to Toronto. If AC leaves them stranded in Winnipeg, AC doesn’t have to pay their hotel because journey hasn’t begun.

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