A private theory I have nurtured for years goes like this: the national airlines of countries with a particularly strong reputation for warm and friendly people tend to employ staff at the opposite end of the personality spectrum.
As evidence, I cite multiple disagreeable experiences at the hands of Iberia of Spain and Sri Lankan Airlines. True, there are counter-examples: on Ethiopian Airlines and Ryanair of Ireland I have always found crew to be helpful and good-humoured. But my argument is that countries with warm, friendly inhabitants are so well-disposed to their fellow humans that they are prepared to accept dismal service. Since home-country nationals make up the largest contingent of passengers, the airline can therefore get away with shoddy service.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Air Canada. The Canadian national carrier employs some superb aviation professionals, but regrettably this month I have suffered aboard no fewer than four AC flights. All of them departed late, and both of the flights to Toronto (from Quebec City and Winnipeg) spent an additional half-hour on the ground at Canada’s biggest airport awaiting a gate.
Each aircraft was well-maintained (if only the same applied to me) but showing clear signs of age. And the inflight service was as absent as any communication about the reason (for example) why I was still in Chicago even though my ticket said I should be in Montreal.
Indeed, I have already made a couple of podcasts for The Independent this month lamenting my unexpected arrival in Quebec’s largest city in the early hours, and, while awaiting a delayed take-off from Toronto, comparing Air Canada unfavourably with UK-based budget airlines easyJet and Jet2.
So it was not a huge surprise when Harry Potter star Matthew Lewis slammed Air Canada on social media.
“Confirmed. Air Canada is the worst airline in North America. And that’s saying something,” tweeted the actor who played amiable Neville Longbottom in all eight Harry Potter films.
Lewis seems to have been treated poorly at the departure gate at Orlando in Florida by staff working for Air Canada Rouge (the budget subsidiary operating the flight).
“Kicking me out of first class to back of plane is what it is but doing it at the gate. Literally tearing my ticket up. No explanation other than ‘full flight’,” he wrote. “Said if I wanted to sort it I should go to customer service. I asked where that was. ‘Toronto’. I’m in Orlando.”
The airline’s invitation to “sit back and relax in our comfortable economy class cabin” clearly did not appeal to Lewis. He was looking forward to “an exclusive cabin with wider seats and more space to stretch out,” as Air Canada Rouge promises its first class customers.
“Honestly never experienced anything like it. I’ve been bumped before. Comes with the territory. But at the gate, less than two minutes to boarding and without explanation or apology? Never. They even said if I wanna complain or get a refund I have to reach out to them!” the actor continued.
Air Canada says in its tariff rules that it will “refund the fare difference for the affected flight” if such an issue arises.
To be clear, the 33-year-old actor did not end up slumming it through the night on an ultra-long-haul intercontinental flight: on a good day, the 1,055-mile trip from central Florida to Toronto Pearson airport takes a little over two hours. A cynical traveller might suggest his experience fits snugly into the overhead bin marked First World Problems.
But I do have some advice for Lewis. First, other airlines are most definitely available: well-regarded WestJet links Orlando with Toronto and competes with Air Canada on many other routes.
Second, one clear advantage of always travelling on the cheapest ticket, as I do, is that you are never in danger of a downgrade.
Third, I am not sure that the star has thought through his assertion: “We as a society should not be okay with normalizing the profiteering of overbooking flights and kicking people off flights.”
Overbooking is a perfectly normal part of the airline business, and in North America it almost always works to everyone’s advantage: incentives are offered to people to downgrade or, more usually, to travel on a later flight. The practice enables more passengers to fly, thereby causing less damage per person to the environment, and also gives hope to travellers who are absolutely desperate to fly on apparently fully booked flights. Magic.
The practice must have been dreamed up by some really nice people. Canadians, probably.