Believe it, Air Canada scores!

ON the few occasions that I spoke good words about Air Canada to Canadians, their reaction was one of disbelief. I attributed that to old memories of past experiences, the rumor mill for regurgitating those stories (without personal experiences), and of course Canadian modesty.

Yet, more than 36,000 Global Traveler readers have only recently voted Air Canada the best airline in North America. It may not be all that of a surprise considering how most American carriers are not known for their service. However, 78 per cent of those respondents traveled first or business class – which should be good on any airline. You can’t fault any airline for paying more attention to this class of travelers since they bring in the big bucks, as recognized by Air Canada in a statement that it released: “Winning the loyalty of premium customers is a priority for all carriers and clearly our renewed focus on service and the investments we have made in on-board, airport and on-line improvements are appealing to travelers.”

What about the service for passengers booked to travel at the back of the aircraft? The seats may be smaller and less comfortable, the meals less elaborate and limited in choice, the flight attendants less personal and the check-in lines much longer, but if you believe that it has more to do with company culture, then that spirit should percolate all the way down from first and business to economy.

I have flown long-haul economy on Air Canada and am reasonably satisfied with the experience. There are some pluses worth mentioning.

Communication

The minute that you book with Air Canada, they maintain a communication line with you, with reminders of your pending travel and information pertaining to not only your flight but also the destination where you are heading. If there is any change to the schedule, you rest assured that you will be informed. This is generally the practice of the more service-oriented North American airlines, such as WestJet (another Canadian airline) and Alaska Airlines. Asian carriers generally prefer to keep their distance, and that includes even some of the more reputable ones. It gives the impression that all that matters to them is that the cat is in the bag.

My main complaint is that you wait an inordinately long time to reach a customer service officer when you use the telephone, but then this happens with practically all – I daresay, all – the other airlines. Air Canada’s redeeming grace is that when you finally succeed in getting through, the officers are by and large very pleasant, knowledgeable and helpful. Most time, you get off the line feeling the wait was worth it.

Seat selection

Air Canada allows you to select your seat as soon as you have booked to fly, something which again most Asian carriers do not permit until 48 hours before you fly if you check-in online for some, unless you travel premium. I feel at ease knowing that I have secured my preferred seat early, on a first-come-first-served basis.

Inflight meals

If you are a seasoned traveler, inflight meals can be boring. But from my varied experience, Air Canada tops in the meals served. Interestingly, a survey conducted by Professor Charles Stuart Platkin of CUNY School of Public Health at New York’s Hunter College praised Air Canada and Virgin America for serving the healthiest inflight food. Prof Platkin was particularly impressed with Air Canada NutriCuisine and with how the airline provides nutritional data sheets for all items that it serves. I’m no health nut, but find the meals appetizing. Now I wonder what it’s like up front.

Mileage rewards

Most mileage rewards offered by the airlines seem unattainable either because of restrictive conditions that limit their ready conversion or because of the high ceiling set for redemption. Air Canada offers probably one of the best schemes in the industry if you are a loyal customer, even in economy – with crossover conversions from industry partners such as hotels and car rentals, and retailers of household products. Reward mileage may be used to top up the fare of your next flight or for a free sector flight within North America, and you can look forward to an upgrade to “Prestige” status annually. By the way, economy class passengers may use the CIP lounge (Maple Leaf) for a fee (sometimes this is just what you need on a long haul) whereas it is a “No No” for most airlines which fear dilution of the premium product.

There are a couple of minuses too.

Long line at check-in

This can be nerve-wrecking when the line does not seem to move fast enough and you worry that you may not be able to make it to the gate in time, considering that there is likely to be a line as long at Immigration and Security. This happens particularly at American ports and in Europe. Industry insiders will tell you this is not quite an airline issue unless the airline self-handles (which Air Canada does at home) as an airport handling agent that has been engaged by the airline to perform the function. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. By comparison, Asian airlines and airports fare better in this respect.

Industrial strikes

Somehow western airlines (and airports) have a propensity for industrial standoff that can be extremely disruptive, especially when your travel entails more than just arriving at a certain destination or if you have an important appointment to keep. Air Canada, British Airways and Qantas are notorious in this respect if you look at recent history. Qantas suffered a big setback to its reputation in recent strikes which resulted in a cancellation of some 450 flights affecting 70,000 passengers in 22 cities around the world and costing the airline A$68 million. So, given a choice, you may weigh your options in favor of an airline with a good industrial record.

That considered, equally important is how an affected airline brings its customers through the rough patch – a matter of consumer’s confidence that the airline during such times will not neglect its customers. In June, when airport staff at check-in went on strike across Canada, Air Canada did a commendable job in continuing to fly as scheduled with reasonably few delays and cancellations. Granted, the situation would have been less manageable had the flight crew gone on strike.

So, believe it, Air Canada must be doing something right. It was also ranked this year’s Best International Airline in North America by Skytrax and Best Flight Experience to Canada by Executive Travel magazine. So far its survey popularity seems to be largely localized within North America, which suggests it compares less favorably in the wider international arena against rival airlines, especially Asian carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways.

Nonetheless, Air Canada deserves to celebrate. The airline’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer Ben Smith said: “This award (Globe Traveler) reflects the efforts of Air Canada’s 26,000 employees and their dedication to providing a superior travel experience to our customers.” It all comes down to corporate culture, eh?

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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