Air Canada has much bigger problems than the price of fuel.
It has become the airline that everyone loves to hate and, after two days of being stranded in Halifax, I can see why.
Let's be clear. This is not about the people who work on the front lines for Air Canada. The check-in agents. The gate agents. The baggage people. The mechanics. The pilots and flight attendants. These people do not make the decisions.
They are, instead, on the receiving end of a justifiably angry Air Canada clientele. They are forced to implement virtually inhuman corporate practices when passengers are stranded late at night hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres away from home.
And some of them are numb. It is the way they cope, because they go to work every day knowing that someone will be mad at them. Someone will shout at them because they work for a corporation that no longer understands the meaning of service and, quite frankly, doesn't care about it.
Began with deregulation
Air Canada's fall started with the deregulation and privatization of the airline industry - policies that have failed the air-travelling public, and policies that were denounced by the workers at Air Canada.
These same policies have made the men running Air Canada over the past decade filthy rich.
Every day, Air Canada employees go to work to find that their work has changed. There is not enough staff to cover a shift properly. They must now tell passengers to get their own boarding cards. To get their own baggage tags. To re-book their own cancelled or re-routed flights. The message to staff is clear: don't help anyone, because helping costs money.
Their Air Canada bosses - responsible for the downgraded service - are closeted away from the travelling public. They don't have to face dazed, confused and often scared passengers - stranded by bad weather, like thunder and lightning storms in central Canada last week, or caplin weather in St. John's.
They do not have to endure heaps of abuse or a litany of frustrations.
And once you experience enough of it, it's difficult to go to work and care about what you do.
I understand all of this. I understand that this makes it difficult to feel compassion because, on top of that, they have had their wages, benefits and working conditions eroded while the boss brings home tens of millions in salary and stock options.
But sometimes all you need is an expression of sympathy, even if that person can do little to help.
I needed it Monday night after failing to get on the fourth or fifth flight of the day. I needed someone to listen to my frustrations about the totally inadequate 1-800 line and the fact that the corporation refused to do anything for hundreds of stranded passengers except tell them to wait. And on top of it all, my seven-year-old just spent 12 hours in an airport, handling it with more grace than some of the adults. That night, all I got was the numbness.
You see, that's what Air Canada's countless restructuring plans, layoffs and downgraded service have done to so many of their staff. But not all of them.
Not the friendly faces at the St. John's airport. And not Halifax gate agents Kevin and Terri-Lynn, who helped us with compassion, understanding and humour. They have refused to let the corporation, the bosses, the rules, the angry masses, get to them. Air Canada doesn't deserve them.
There is so little the frontline staff can do unless the big guys running the operations decide they will do something - put on an extra flight, use a larger plane. Anything so people are not forced to spend their hard-earned paycheques on hotels and extra meals, or waste their vacation in an airport.
Sunday night, after circling Torbay airport and then flying back to Halifax, we were handed a scrap of paper with two 1-800 numbers on it as we stumbled off the plane.
The first number was supposed to help you find a hotel.
It didn't. The second was an Air Canada support line, so we could rebook another flight. We phoned the number at least six times. I gave up counting after that. One call lasted more than 90 on-hold minutes. My husband gave up at about 2:30 a.m. and I started calling again around 4:30 a.m. No one ever answered.
I kept thinking of the elderly folks who were on our plane and the several other flights that got re-routed to Halifax. Like the man hooked up to medical equipment. Or the elderly woman, travelling alone, who was taken care of, not by the airline, but by a group of stranded Newfoundland women who shared their hotel room with her. And what of all the people who don't travel much - who helped them navigate their way back on another plane to get home?
In the good old days, a customer service agent greeted you when flights were rerouted and helped rebook you on another flight. They even helped with hotels.
But the airline can't afford to do these things anymore and pay retiring CEO Robert Milton - the guy who nearly drove the airline into the ground - a whopping $43 million last year and another $10 million after Air Canada's parent company was dissolved.
Tuesday morning, my husband, daughter and I trekked back to the airport for the second day in a row. On the way, we heard the news.
Air Canada had just announced it would be laying off another 2,000 people, downgrading its service further. The corporation blamed fuel for its woes. But fuel prices have nothing to do with service.
This is an airline unable to deal with anything but normal, and when you are in the airline business a large part of that business is dealing with the abnormal - bad weather, mechanical difficulties. But the airline is so stressed, every flight so maxed out or oversold, that there is no ability to deal with anything other than a perfect day.
The solution is for Ottawa to get back in the airline business. This industry needs regulation. People, passengers, should not be footing the bill because Air Canada bosses suck at their job and still get paid obscene amounts of money.
Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.Her column returns July 6.
Air Canada has much bigger problems than the price of fuel.
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