Settling in for long-haul flight dissatisfaction
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Welcome to the nightmare that is air travel.
Last month, I was scheduled to fly, with my son, to Montreal and then on to the United Kingdom. From Winnipeg, if you go anywhere other than Calgary and Toronto, it seems like you have to endure connecting flights.
Our initial flight was delayed for 45 minutes for no apparent reason. The weather was reasonable, the pilots and flight crew had boarded. An announcement indicated luggage handlers were having trouble securing “a musical instrument” in the plane’s hold.
As we sat on the runway, I saw my 75-minute connection window slowly disappearing. The flight crew assured us we’d be okay because “they know you’re coming.”
With help from Air Canada staff in Montreal, we sped through the airport on a luggage cart and got to the connecting gate 13 minutes before scheduled departure, only to be told the doors had closed and we weren’t allowed to board.
We sped through the airport on a luggage cart and got to the connecting gate 13 minutes before scheduled departure, only to be told the doors had closed and we weren’t allowed to board.
After suffering through the nonchalant delay in leaving Winnipeg — where nobody from the airline demonstrated any urgency — the sudden decision to prevent impacted passengers from boarding the connecting flight seemed odd and arbitrary.
I ran to the Air Canada customer service kiosk in the airport and, after expressing my outrage, was told they would get us to London one way or the other. Then, the phone rang.
There was a maintenance issue and they would allow us to board. We all ran back to the gate, only to be told the bridge had been separated from the plane and the operator did not have authority to reconnect. After a few minutes of huddling among Air Canada staff, someone made the courageous decision to reconnect the bridge.
You can probably guess what happened next: after boarding, we remained on the tarmac for two hours while ground crew de-iced the engines. We got to London, but the stress and anxiety of the experience haunted us throughout the trip.
All of which leads me to an obvious and inescapable reality: it doesn’t matter where you’re flying or when, air travel has become a crapshoot.
How bad, exactly, is it?
Under the auspices of the Canadian Transportation Agency, last year, the federal government introduced Air Passenger Protection regulations that require airlines to provide compensation of up to $1,000 in the event of flight delays and cancellations.
Although the new regulations were well-timed — there were a number of high-profile airline snafus last year that left thousands of Canadians stranded — but perhaps failed to accurately estimate the extent of traveller displeasure.
The CTA currently has a backlog of nearly 50,000 complaints, and the agency estimates the wait time for a response is about 18 months.
The CTA currently has a backlog of nearly 50,000 complaints, and the agency estimates the wait time for a response is about 18 months. Most of those cases involve travellers who already applied to their airlines for compensation, and were either denied or given insufficient amounts.
I know, because I’m one.
In November, a flight I was scheduled to take to Toronto was cancelled without a definitive explanation. I lost $400 in non-refundable concert tickets and $600 in non-refundable hotel costs. After filing a claim with Air Canada, I was told I didn’t qualify for compensation but the airline still gave me $300.
So, I filed an application with the CTA. Let the waiting begin.
Why is air travel so unpredictable?
Flight-disrupting, climate change inspired severe weather events seem to be more the rule than the exception these days. There also remains a significant staff shortage, both on planes and in airports.
Finally, the economics of air travel has forced airlines to jam as many people into planes, and jam as many flights into airports, as possible. That means very tight margins to mitigate unanticipated delays.
However, that is not to say the airlines aren’t making a bad situation worse.
Boarding a flight is pure anarchy.
Weather, economics and what appears to be a note of emotional resignation on the part of airport and airplane staff mean travel will continue to be risky business.
Even though airlines tell passengers to board by zone number, nobody tries to get them to line up in an orderly fashion. The result is boarding takes much longer than necessary, as throngs of people crowd in front of a single point of entry.
Once onboard, the anarchy gives way to more chaos.
Given chronic delays in handling checked luggage, everyone, it seems, is using carry-on bags.
The airlines do tell people to only put larger carry-on luggage in the overhead bins and smaller items underneath seats. However, once on the plane, people jam the overhead bins with purses, briefcases, random shopping bags and jackets, leaving no room for bigger carry-ons.
It’s a serious matter. If those bags now need to be tagged and stowed in the luggage hold, which does happen, the flight can be delayed. Flight attendants could manage this better, but for reasons not entirely clear, they do nothing.
All of this leaves the average traveller with very little reason for optimism. Weather, economics and what appears to be a note of emotional resignation on the part of airport and airplane staff mean travel will continue to be risky business.
Of course, the public could force the airlines to do a better job simply by not flying. Unfortunately, it seems most of us (including me) are simply not prepared to give up travelling.
At least, not yet.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.