My First Air Canada Experience and The Bitter Taste of Bad Customer Service

I just wrapped up an incredibly fun trip to celebrate my 30th birthday in Quebec. We visited Mont Tremblant for some snowboarding and then spent some city time in Montreal. I’ve actually been quite lucky and had good travel karma for quite some time now so I guess I was due for a cancellation at some point. We were traveling on award tickets using United MileagePlus miles booked onto Air Canada. We were set to fly from Montreal (YUL) to (DFW) with a connection in Toronto (YYZ). I’ve been through YYZ multiple times without a problem. But I quickly learned that Canadians love to hate YYZ.

Our stress began 24 hours before departure when I tried to used Air Canada’s iPhone app to check in for our flights. There seemed to be all kinds of issues and then I realized that our seats had moved and they were no longer together. I had specifically selected an itinerary with the YYZ to YUL segment on an Airbus A330. Now we were on an A320. I called Air Canada’s customer service to get our seats back together which the phone representative told me was not possible. I asked him about the change in plane type. He assured me that this was not the case, there was no equipment swap. We headed to the airport the next day and arrived very early for check-in. Since we had brought our snowboards, we had 4 bags to check. I’m Premier Silver with United which makes me Star Alliance Silver. There are almost zero perks for Star Alliance Silver but on Air Canada, you are entitled to have the first checked bag free. You do not have access to the Priority baggage lanes. The self-serve kiosks wanted to charge for all four bags and when I asked an agent for help, she simply told me I was wrong. I pulled up Air Canada’s baggage rules on my phone and explained this to her very politely. She directed us to full-service check-in for assistance. The full-service agent was kind but was having a really hard time on figuring out how to charge us. She ended up charging us for 3 bags and somewhat odd amounts. The fees were not consistent. We should have been charged $25, $35, and $35 with one bag free. We were charged $50 and $35. I was done debating the issues and we moved on.

We headed through security and when I’m in Canada, I start to really miss TSA PreCheck. While we were waiting, I starting reviewing our itinerary and realized that we had been bumped to another flight by Air Canada with no notification. Our original flight, on the A330 was still scheduled but we had been bumped to a different flight on the A320 with seats no longer together involuntarily. I found this irritating and was going to ask the agent at our gate but he was the type that would say anything to get you away from the counter so I figured I’d take the issue up later. We boarded our flight to YYZ on time and settled in. Just as we were backing up from the gate, the captain came on and announced that due to air traffic control restrictions and fog, we were one of 50 flights cancelled into YYZ. Lovely!

Since we were near the back of the plane, I knew we’d be close to last in line for re-booking. I fired up Twitter and immediately reach out to Air Canada. I got the most unhelpful response below:

yyztweet

 

It’s so important for airlines, or any brand for that matter, to have useful, good social media presence. Twitter is a great way for airlines to help resolve customer issues in a quick manner. American, Delta, and Southwest have all assisted me with issues over Twitter to avoid lines and long waits on the phone. Since, Air Canada’s social media team doesn’t actually offer concrete assistance, I went ahead and called the customer service phone line. Meanwhile, all passengers were directed a line at our original gate. After 15 minutes (I’m still on hold on the phone), we were moved to a different gate about halfway down the terminal. When we arrived at this new gate, there were zero Air Canada employees waiting to assist. We stood around for another 15 minutes (still on hold on the phone) and one employee showed up to assist about 120 passengers. By this time, we are certain we aren’t going to make our connection in YYZ onto Dallas. The line at the gate isn’t moving at all and finally after 40 minutes on hold, someone picks up on the phone line.

The phone agent found several options to re-book but none of them get us home that day. I suggested putting us on a United flight connecting a in a different hub and perhaps we wouldn’t have to stay the night. He even wanted to put us on a two-connection flight and I wasn’t going for that at all. After on the phone with him for 10 minutes, he refused to re-book us and said the gate agent would re-book us. Really!? Meanwhile, back at our gate, another Air Canada flight, also bound for YYZ, pulled up to the gate. This was an A330 that was only half full and they unloaded all of those passengers. They were now going to combine both passenger loads onto this single, larger aircraft. It took them another 90 minutes to simply issue new boarding passes to flight #1 and passengers on flight #2 kept their original boarding passes.

Finally 3.5 hours late, we took off for YYZ. Our connection to Dallas was delayed as well but we still missed it. On arrival at YYZ, they directed us to different desks for re-booking. US-bound passengers to one gate and Canada-bound passengers to customer service. Well that was useless because they merged us all back to the customer service desk. We stood around for 20 minutes and they finally started calling names to pass out boarding passes for our re-booked flights and hotel vouchers. For a moment, I felt as if Air Canada had finally started getting organized. We were issued a hotel voucher, vouchers for dinner at the hotel, and vouchers for breakfast at the airport the next morning. We headed toward the baggage claim to retrieve our bags. Ideally, we wanted to grab two of our suitcases that were checked and not have to haul around our snowboard gear and re-check it. Each baggage representative told us a different story; one said we couldn’t have our bags at all, the other said we had to take all four. Well, we ended up with all four bags and having to haul them to the hotel.

We took the hotel shuttle to the Pearson Hotel & Conference Centre Toronto Airport. It was not the hotel I would have selected. You can read my lovely review about it on Yelp. To summarize, we weren’t pleased with the hotel. There was also no hotel restaurant to use our dinner vouchers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hotel tried to get reimbursement from Air Canada for the meals. The meal vouchers and hotel voucher were on the same card. We slept a couple hours and headed back to YYZ for our flight to Dallas which was scheduled for 8:45 AM. We arrived at YYZ at 6:15 AM which should have been plenty of time for checking bags and clearing US PreClearance. Or so we thought. We went to self-service baggage to re-tag our bags. The kiosk wanted to re-charge us for our bags which I wasn’t about to do. I tried to get quick assistance from a floating agent but she said no-way and we had to go back to full-service baggage. Along with hundreds of other people. We stood in line for 90 minutes plus while many people were pulled out of line for “expedited” service until only one agent was assisting the “regular” passengers and 6 agents were assisting the “expedited” folks. It was beyond asinine.  We finally got our bags checked and headed to Global Entry. A YYZ airport employee tried to stop us from using Global Entry, even with our cards until I had to get a supervisor to let us through.

Keep in mind, we had not eaten since 2 PM the prior day at YUL since our hotel had no restaurant and there was nothing nearby. We had about 20 minutes to grab a snack at YYZ before boarding. I’m surprised I was polite as I was with such an empty stomach.

I have a decent understanding of how these operations work and this was some of the worst I’ve seen. If you’ve made it this far through my rant, you’re patient. But there’s so many details to our experience, I just couldn’t leave them out. I always hate to hear people who have a bad experience and make off the-cuff remarks like “I’m never flying ABC Airline again!”. It’s usually over something stupid like gate-checking a bag. But this was a pretty abysmal operation all around. I’ll be sure to really think about my flight options when Air Canada pops up in my itinerary again.

 

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