Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Flying problems

This past Christmas season was a particularly bad one for flyers.  People across Canada have been unhappy with airline service and with good reason.  The Globe reports that Air Canada and WestJet had to fork over big bucks to cover hotel rooms and food vouchers for their stranded flyers.  In November, 85 per cent of Air Canada's flights landed within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival but in December only 59 per cent fell within that timeframe, far short of its target of 68 per cent.  WestJet did no better.

Horror stories abound of passengers sitting on tarmacs for 12 hours at a time.  This has put wind in the sails of Mayor Woodrow Smith's project of a passenger's Bill of Rights.  Little wonder it has received support in the House of Commons.

Since shortly after birth, I've flown hundreds of thousands of air miles to more than a dozen countries and almost all provinces (BC awaits!) so I consider myself a very seasoned traveler.  I'm rarely as happy as when boarding a plane with a passport in one pocket, money in the other and ticket in hand; my wife calls me a xenophile.  But on many levels, I can attest that flying is not the fun it used to be.  Besides the security associated drags, the nation's flight travel network is more precarious than ever before.

When I was regularly flying to Nunavut for work, it was unusual for me to make the trip on time with all my luggage.  One time I was caught in Ottawa for an unscheduled overnight visit accompanied by only half my luggage.  The other half I retrieved from Ottawa airport from the middle of a vast sea of lost bags from across Canada.  Another time on an early morning flight, I dozed for 3 hours only to awake and find myself still in St. John's to be told that the flight was canceled.

In my memory, delays like this were uncommon before about 10 or 15 years ago.  Sure there were always the local fog cancellations where the local weather would deter all pilots from landing except the famed EPA bush flyers.  But back then it tended to be local conditions which caused local cancellations - the national system tended to roll ahead as normal.

But these wider systemic problems exist today because of airline deregulation.  The upside of deregulation has been cheaper tickets for the travelers.  But the downside has been a national flight network stretched to the breaking point.  There used to be enough slack and fat in the travel system such that when one section broke down, the other sections could take the load.  Under deregulation the airlines adopted more economical routing models: the current hub and spoke system.  Under hub and spoke, when one part comes under strain, the whole national network just falls apart causing cascading failures across the system.

So if Toronto has a weather problem, flights across the country are delayed or canceled.

I'm not sure what the solution is but we have to acknowledge some unavoidable constants: we live in a winter country where bad weather is inherent during some parts of the year; the hub and spoke system, with all the associated economic advantages and cascading failure disadvantages, is here to stay.

Because of those two things, travel delay problems are inevitable.

However, given that these delays and cancellations are now part of the life of the modern air traveler, it is up to the airlines and the passengers to be aware of that and to compensate and adjust.

It's not how a company behaves in good times that is the measure of their customer service; it's how the company reacts under adverse conditions that is the measure of their customer service.  Like any other sector which deals directly with the public, airlines have to go the extra mile to ensure their customers have a good experience.  Sure it is not the responsibility of airlines that snow has set in; but how airlines respond to that is their responsibility.

Service with a scowl, when you get service at all, doesn't cut it.

If the airlines are reluctant to treat passengers like human beings instead of like cargo then maybe a passenger bill of rights is a step in the right direction.  Ultimately, good service is in the interests of the airlines as well as the passengers; airlines should get ahead of the issue.


towniebastard said...

There was a fascinating article I read last year, and I can't for the life of me remember where (Atlantic Monthly perhaps?) saying the major problem was the small passenger commuter planes. That there were too many 50 passenger planes in major hubs, especially during peak hours, and that was gumming up the works.

This was a pretty knowledgeable guy with a lot of experience in aviation and what he was saying made sense.

Maybe instead of making Pearson International bigger and bigger, perhaps they should look at developing a second airport to handle more regional flights. Might be a nuisance for passengers transferring planes, but so were the massive delays over Christmas.

Simon said...

I saw that one too! I think it might be here:

There has to be a solution to this mess.