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:

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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.

 

The TSA PreCheck Rants are Abound!

Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen quite a bit of back and forth between a few prominent travel bloggers and the TSA on Twitter. While government bureaucracy isn’t sexy and the TSA probably isn’t America’s favorite federal agency, TSA PreCheck has been quite a time saver since I gained the benefit earlier this year. I gained the PreCheck benefits through my Global Entry membership for $100 for 5 years. Not a bad price when comes out to about 5 cents a day for a pretty cool benefit. I wrote a previous post about how my application experience went. 

Everyone has a different experience and it’s not for everyone but here are my personal observations:

1) I’ve had 100% success rate on all my flight bookings since joining. I hope that keeps up but I’, expecting a time where it won’t work at some point.

2) Most PreCheck travelers are fairly efficient and understand the process. However, some appear to have no idea of what PreCheck is and I’m not sure if they even recall signing up for it. And yes, I am aware that the TSA occasionally lets random passengers into the PreCheck lines. I’ve rarely seen that occur lately.

3) It’s just about essential when flying through major leisure airports like. I’m frequently in Orlando or Tampa where TSA PreCheck is totally worth it. There’s not many business travelers so the PreCheck lines are short. Plus leisure airports usually means lots of slow, infrequent travelers who can barely figure out how to take off their shoes. Honolulu was another place where I saved a ton of time.

4) If you’re flying through major business hubs like LAX or JFK, expect to be in line with a lot of others PreCheck travelers. Heavy business traffic. It may not save you time but it will save you the headache of removing shoes and belts.

The TSA is currently looking to expand the PreCheck program to more travelers which has many frequent travelers concerned. I think if the average traveler is educated on how TSA PreCheck works and is prepared to move through the process efficiently, I think it might work. However, forcing tons of infrequent travelers through the TSA PreCheck program who will make PreCheck vastly more inefficient is going to piss off quite a few travelers. I don’t expect TSA PreCheck to be an “elite” program but I think you’re going to be in it, there’s an expectation to be prepared for the process.

In the end, TSA is there to ensure the safety of air travel. As long as my experience with TSA PreCheck continues to go as it’s gone so far, I’ll continue to endorse it as one of the best travel perks out there.

Sunday Was My Proof for the Naysayers That Airline Status Matters

For a lot of travelers, the point of flying is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and as cheaply as possible. But for those of us travel hackers/mile hoarders/road warriors,  it’s much more than that. While my friends and family don’t criticize my obsession with miles and airline status, I’m sure there are those who find the hobby a complete waste of time and money. But this last weekend on my return to Dallas from Florida via Orlando (on July 4th weekend) was a prime example of why airline status is worth the effort and bit of cash.

While I’m only the lowly Premier Silver with United Airlines, the basic perks of simply Silver will save you all kinds of headaches. I’m sure most of you have been to Orlando as it’s one of the top travel destinations int the world. If you’ve been, you also know that it’s a very congested city due to all the attractions. And while Orlando International (MCO) is very well designed, it still doesn’t mean short lines and short waits for the average traveler. Our flight was an early one on this Sunday morning and while expected a crowd, I thought our pre-dawn departure would spare us slightly. Well, I was clearly surprised.

We approached the United ticketing counters to check one of our large bags at 5:00 AM. There were a minimum of 150-200 folks in line for United ticketing. Guess how many were in line at Premier Access? Two. Our bag was promptly checked in 2 minutes and we were on our way to security. Our next perk wasn’t directly related to airline status but to our Global Entry enrollment with the additional perk of TSA Precheck. That previous line at ticketing almost seemed like a breeze when we approached the TSA lines. There must have been 400-500 people in line, routing through ONE main queue line! Orlando’s has one central terminal with an “A” and “B” ticketing side. The PreCheck side is closer to “A” but we approached from “B” and both sides use the same TSA lines. We hurried over to the PreCheck side and were delighted when we only found 3 people in line for PreCheck! We were on our way to the concourse tram in just a couple of minutes and we easily avoided spending 45 minutes+ in line for TSA.

We skirted off for a quick coffee and onto our gate. We had plenty of time to move at our leisure thanks to our previous perks. We would have been far more rushed had we not had those perks. And to top it all off, we were upgraded to First on our IAH bound flight!

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Of course, this journey was an example of things going very much in our favor due to Elite status. However, the day wasn’t perfect as United did leave my checked bag behind in IAH and it was delayed. However, they did deliver it to my house just a few hours later. There were a few factors that did help make our experience even easier:

  • We were departing early on a Sunday morning
  • Orlando on a weekend means very few business travelers
  • Orlando is not a United hub/focus city, equaling small number of Elite travelers
  • Low time and day for Elite travelers and TSA PreCheck travelers

So for those of you newbie or light travelers who think that Elite status is just a waste of time, re-think about inserting status into your travel and miles strategy. It’s saving a ton in baggage fees alone! And don’t forget to do you research on status matches, it doesn’t hurt to politely ask!

 

Global Entry Approved….Finally!

I’d been contemplating registering for Global Entry on and off for a few months and finally decided it was worth the $100 bite for five years or enrollment. I travel internationally somewhat regularly but the added bonus of TSA Precheck was the perk that won me over. There’s a lot of info out there with folks sharing their various experiences with the Global Entry application process. But the average American probably doesn’t know what Global Entry is or how to sign up. Most frequent travelers love this since they despise the thought of too many folks getting in the TSA PreCheck lines. But who can blame them as the whole point of TSA PreCheck is to save time and longer lines will only defeat that.

Fortunately for myself, I’m not based out of LGA or another overcrowded airport with a half million other frequent travelers enrolled in a Trusted Traveler program. The security lines at my main airport, Dallas-Fort Worth, has very short security lines most of the time. I also use Dallas Love Field frequently which can have some heavy peak TSA lines but still nothing like LAX or LGA.

The process of applying for Global Entry does require a bit of patience. I’ve heard varying timelines of both the application and scheduling of the interview. Depending on where you live and how many Global Entry centers are nearby plays into how quickly you can get your interview. If you are applying for Global Entry, you will begin by registering in the Homeland Security GOES web portal and submitting an application for Global Entry. You can also apply for TSA PreCheck and Nexus through GOES. However, you must be near the Canadian border for your Nexus interview as Nexus centers are only in Canada and the Northern border states. If you do live near a Nexus center, it is a better value than Global Value at only $50 vs. $100 for five years.

Once you’ve submitted your application through the GOES system, the application will head off to Homeland Security for review. I’ve heard applications take as long as a couple weeks to as short as a couple days. Mine was the latter at just about 2 days to receive preliminary approval. As long as you don’t have a history of breaking the law or violating customs rules, I wouldn’t sweat being approved. The GOES system will notify you by email when there are changes to your application status. Once you receive you pre-approval electronically through the GOES system, you have 30 days to schedule your interview at a Global Entry center. DFW Airport is the only Global Entry center in the Dallas area. DFW currently has a very full schedule through the summer. I checked other airports around the country and airports like SFO, JFK, and DEN had availability for interviews much sooner. I got pre-approval in early April and the next available slot was at the end of June. After that, the next slot wasn’t until August. Not too efficient, eh?

All the travel blogs will tell you to check daily for cancellations and earlier slots to open up. I recommend this as well but it took a long time for an earlier slot to open up. A couple weeks ago, a slot opened up on June 7th. Of course, I took it. For all the waiting weeks or months for your interview, the actual interview only took me about 10 minutes of waiting in the lobby and 3 minutes for the interview. They take a quick picture and take your fingerprints. Other than long wait to schedule an interview, it’s very painless.

You’ll receive your Trusted Traveler ID number on your pre-approval letter but it won’t be any good until after your interview. Homeland Security tells you it takes 48 hours to receive the final approval email but I got mine about 2 hours later. Of course, as soon as I got home I entered my Trusted Traveler ID into all of my existing reservations and my frequent flyer profiles. I should receive my Global Entry card in about 2 weeks. I hope my picture looks nice!

Here’s to looking forward to lots of TSA PreCheck selection and painless, short U.S. re-entry!

Share your own experience with Global Entry in the comments below.