Air Canada’s check-in crackdown needs fixing

Peter Nowak on missing his flight by five minutes
An Air Canada Boeing 767 is shown in a handout photo. A new report blames a groggy Air Canada pilot for a sudden dive that led to 16 injuries over the North Atlantic.The incident aboard the Boeing 767 occurred on an overnight flight from Toronto to Zurich in January last year.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Air Canada

I’m on vacation this week – camping in West Virginia – and the wife and I decided to drive. Why? Because flying is hell.

As a recent feature in Macleans detailed, not only is it getting more expensive to fly, it’s also taking longer. Airlines in Canada and the United States are in full-scale monetization mode, meaning they’re adding all kinds of new fees on top of steady price hikes. And, as I discovered on a trip last week to Washington D.C., they’re forcing passengers to get to the airport even earlier, meaning that trips are taking longer overall. For relatively shorter trips, it’s becoming much more desirable to simply take the car.

Air Canada is a particular standout in this regard. Suffering from one of the industry’s highest tardiness rates – only 60 per cent of its flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled times in 2012 – the airline has instituted a new zero-tolerance policy for late-arriving passengers. Customers traveling within Canada must now arrive for check-in within 45 minutes of their flight, rather than 30 minutes. Those going to the U.S., as I was, have 60 minutes.

There isn’t any flexibility with these edicts, if my experience was any indicator.

I’m a frequent traveler and have a Nexus card, which allows me to breeze through customs and security. It usually takes five to 10 minutes, tops. I also avoid checking luggage at all costs, since doing so often adds to wait times on arrival (my Toronto record waiting for luggage is about 70 minutes), not to mention the inevitable fee for doing so.

On my trip last week, I arrived 55 minutes before my flight, only to find that I couldn’t get a boarding pass. The customer service agent was adamant about not giving me one – she said it was impossible to do because the system locked down at the one-hour point. She was downright rude, almost indignant that I had the audacity to show up five minutes after the cut-off. I ended up having to re-book onto a later flight, with a $79 fee to boot.

Here’s the funny part: I zoomed through customs and security as expected and made it to the gate of the original flight in plenty of time for boarding. I asked the agent there if she could put me back on the flight and she did, with a smile. So much for the “impossibility” of a locked-down system.

The whole situation could have been avoided if I had been able to get a boarding pass ahead of time, either printed out at home or on my phone. Washington is on the list of U.S. cities that such passes are available for, so what was the problem? Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick tells me “it could have been another type of IT issue,” but I almost wondered if it was another monetization attempt. Not giving passengers advance boarding passes – and from what I’ve seen, it’s a total crapshoot as to whether you get one or not – is a good way to either get them there early, or to miss the cut-offs, in which case they have to pay re-booking fees.

Air Canada says the check-in crackdown is an effort to improve on that woeful on-time arrival rate, and it appears to be working. The airline says its rate improved to 80 per cent in May. That’s great because it avoids delays, but it also brings up two other big, new issues to deal with.

One is the issue of flexibility with those who are obviously prepared frequent travellers. The second, more important issue, is fixing those “IT issues” so that passengers can get their boarding passes ahead of time. It’s counter-productive, at least from a business standpoint, for an airline to improve arrival performance if it is angering and alienating its best customers in the process. It would be nice to see a little humanity and some better technology to go with the newfound focus on timeliness.