Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Of Intrepid Junior Bloggers, Airlines, and Momma Bears

I like to believe that generally speaking I am a nice woman. I tend to believe in good manners and best behaviour, but on occasion I reach a certain point where I toss that aside and give in to my darker, and more volatile, side. That happened recently when the Intrepid Junior Blogger was flying south to visit her father, and we ran into a little trouble at the Fort McMurray airport.

Now when you put the words "airport" and "a little trouble" together you know there is no way it can be little at all. Any trouble at an airport is big trouble, and I know this because once upon a time I worked for a small airline in northern Ontario. We used words like "a little trouble" when speaking to passengers all the time, and roughly translated it usually meant "suck it up, buttercup, there isn't a chance in hell you are flying anywhere today because the wing just fell off the plane" (or some other lesser incident, usually, but one that nonetheless meant travel chaos). So, when I arrived at the YMM airport with the IJB and saw the line-up to check-in at Air Canada I was aghast.

The line, you see, stretched all the way back to the doors, snaking around the terminal like some horrible conga line of rolling luggage. They were checking in three flights, true, but it still got my instincts going because line-ups like this at airports are usually the first sign of "a little trouble".

Now, it drives me nuts that you can check in ahead of time but we have no bag drop or bag tag printers, forcing you to still check-in at the counter if you have luggage. This makes me crazy, because the concept of on-line check-ins is to save time, and it doesn't save any time the way it currently is. I assume this will be addressed with the new terminal, but currently it drives me completely bonkers because it doesn't make any sense. This meant the IJB and I had to wait in line, and wait, and wait, until, about three people to go ahead of us, the dreaded announcement was made.

First they announced the flight the IJB was on had "taken on a delay". A two hour delay. Well, no big deal, really, flights can be delayed, so I was quite okay with that. And then, as an afterthought, they tacked on that the aircraft had also been downgraded - from a 75-seat aircraft to a 50-seat aircraft. Suddenly "a little trouble" was looking a lot more ominous.

Knowing what I do about airlines I guessed that the flight was full, meaning 25 people would be looking for seats. When we finally got to the counter I asked some questions. Was there a seat for the IJB on the flight? The passenger service agent indicated she did not know. If there was not what procedure were they using to bump passengers to later flights? Again, she did not know. When was the next flight with seats? She did not know. After each answer I could feel my head shaking, a silent warning to her that these were not the right answers to give me. And, finally, she offered that she had heard a "rumour" that there would be a flight added that night at 9 pm (it was currently about 1 pm). Then she told us we could go and take a seat and wait to hear about the flight and whether the IJB was on it, but she could not give her a boarding pass or tag her bags. I looked her in the eye and told her that the IJB is a 13-year old flying alone, and that I genuinely hoped that was taken into consideration when assigning seats.

As directed I went and sat down. And then I went on a little Twitter rage.First I tweeted to Air Canada that they could add me to the list of unhappy customers. Within minutes they replied and asked me to message them directly with my concerns, which I did. First I told them about the delayed flight, the downgraded aircraft, the vague and nebulous answers, and the "rumour" of a later flight that was being offered as information. I suppose I was a bit harsh, but after years working for an airline I knew that telling passengers that another flight was "rumoured" was worse than having no answers. I gave them the flight details, and I added that my child was flying alone. I told them this didn't exactly give me, or the IJB, confidence in their airline. And then I watched as within minutes an agent was handing the IJB a boarding pass and tagging her bag.

As we were waiting in the security line the IJB stared at me in amazement. I suspect it's one of the few times I have ever actually impressed the kid, and I explained a few things to her. First I explained that I worked for airlines so know a few things about how they function. Second I explained that unlike many other businesses being nice gets you virtually nowhere with an airline. If you are too nice you are often the one left sitting behind when everyone else has a boarding pass. I explained you want to be the one they know will be glaring at them from the uncomfortable waiting room seats. You don't want to be rude to them - that is never the answer - but you don't want to be a doormat, either.

I don't know if my Twitter rage is why she ended up on the plane, but I think there may well be a connection. All I know is I have a strong sense that she would not have been on the plane had I not contacted Air Canada via Twitter and made my case (including questioning the wisdom of agents talking about rumoured flights and not being able to answer very basic questions about procedure, like how they determine who to bump from a downgraded aircraft). And the other thing I was reminded of that day is that I am a pretty ferocious momma bear type, and while I probably would have been waving good bye to the plane from the terminal as it left without me I was quite determined my kid was getting on that plane (or, said another way, "nobody puts baby in a corner").

A few days later Air Canada got another taste of Fort McMurray Twitter rage when they announced a seat sale - and when they announced it they not only called us Fort MacMurray but said we were not included in the seat sale pricing. It was adding insult to injury, and the collective howl was immediate and effective. Dozens of people went on their own Twitter rage (as well as emailing) and by the end of it Air Canada was apologizing and adding YMM to the seat sale, too. I suppose it was an example of "We are Fort McMurray, hear us roar" or some such equally empowering adage. And it was pretty damn amazing to witness.

So, that's my Air Canada story. For the record the IJB arrived at her destination happy and pretty impressed with her mother (and that's pretty rare these days, what with the teenage thing going on, so I was feeling pretty pleased, too). In the end I felt pretty good about Air Canada, and the IJB will fly with them again some day. Not for a bit, though. My blood pressure just can't handle many more of those momma bear moments, and I suspect I should be saving them for important things - like future boyfriends. I think I'll get a sign made for the front door - "beware of (momma) bear". It only seems fair to give some sort of warning, really.

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