Several weeks ago, columnist and travel agent extraordinaire Mark Feldman wrote in the pages of The Jerusalem Post about the wonders of flying business class aboard one of Air Canada’s shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliners (“Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” The Travel Adviser, November 9).
As the headline implied, Feldman was a guest of the airline. When I flew the same plane and route to Toronto later in the month, I was decidedly not. I was an anonymous passenger in an economy-class seat procured not through the good graces of journalism or with Mark’s help, but with frequent flyer mileage – although as cattle-class rides go, my 787 experience was pretty good.
Until I had to deplane and deal with the airline.
Nothing among my travails with Air Canada can be classified as the “flight from hell.” That designation will probably forever be reserved for what was supposed to be a nine-and-a-half-hour TWA flight that ended up involving an open cargo hatch, an emergency landing, a passenger’s mid-Atlantic heart attack, a second emergency landing, broken landing gear (because the cockpit crew was stingy with its second fuel dump of the flight), a long wait on the tarmac, a passenger rebellion and a second heart attack.
When my family’s frequent flyer mileage for this flight got lost in the company bureaucracy, the airline had the temerity to say tough luck.
Of course, we all know where TWA is today.
No, you can call my recent dealings with Air Canada the “flight from purgatory,” because I was left in airline limbo. Twice.
THE FIRST limbo came after landing in Toronto when my connecting flight to Hartford was canceled.
At the Air Canada desk they mumbled something about a technical problem as they printed out hotel vouchers saying “Reason: MISCONNECT CONTROLLABLE” – Air Canada-ese for “It’s our fault.” Once at the nearby hotel, however, the check-in clerk rolled his eyes, saying he saw a lot of this when smaller destinations were involved.
“They seem to cancel when there are just a few passengers,” he explained. “It’s cheaper to put you up in a hotel and then on the next flight.”
The second limbo, the doozy, came on the way back.
For some reason, rather than giving me a slightly earlier, direct flight from Hartford to Toronto to catch my Dreamliner back to Tel Aviv, the computer allowed only a Hartford- Montreal-Toronto route, with an hour and a half between flights. But in Montreal, there was a snowstorm. In Air Canada parlance, that would be “MISCONNECT UNCONTROLLABLE.”
The 18-seater coming in from Montreal to take us there was only 27 minutes late, and the Air Canada agent in Hartford had checked my bag through to Tel Aviv, saying I wouldn’t have to claim it until I arrived in Israel. I had visions of a transit section in Montreal and a gate to Toronto. Fair enough. But no, upon landing there was a 1,000-meter dash to passport control and customs, and lengthy, bilingual forms with questions about Ebola and live plants. No transit status for me.
A mad dash to Air Canada’s connections desk. “Any bags to check, monsieur?” Mine was checked through to Tel Aviv. “Oh, no, you must claim it here and then recheck it.”
Dash back toward baggage claim through customs. No entry. “Go to the special luggage section, monsieur.”
Ten minutes at special luggage section, mad dash back to desk and then to luggage drop-off. “Oh no, monsieur, you must reticket your luggage.” Dash to ticketing desk. Wait in line. “Oh, I’m sorry, monsieur, you’ve missed your flight to Toronto. We’ll try to put you on the next one. You should get there just in time to make your flight to Tel Aviv.”
At the gate, I’m told I’m only on standby.
Miraculously, though, my name is called.
But once aboard, the pilot tells us we’ll have to be de-iced, meaning a delay of 45 minutes to an hour. Goodbye, Tel Aviv.
In Toronto, the desk agent is very nice.
“I’ll get you on the next flight to Tel Aviv.
Which is in two days.” How about a faster connection through Europe? “Sorry, sir, all of this evening’s flights are full – we’re trying to get passengers out before tonight’s blizzard.”
Think fast. Air Canada is a Star Alliance partner with United, which has a nonstop flight tomorrow afternoon from Newark, New Jersey. I know because I booked my Air Canada flights with my United frequent flyer mileage and had wanted that flight.
Clickety-clack on the keyboard. “All right, sir, you’re confirmed for tomorrow’s United Flight 84 and have a connecting flight to Newark in an hour.” And a hotel at the airport? “Sorry, sir, your missed connection was due to weather.” And to Air Canada’s incompetence for allowing connection times that don’t take into account bad winter weather, for mistakenly checking luggage straight through to a foreign destination, for not providing passengers with proper explanations, for…. “Okay, sir, we’ll see what we can do. See the gate agent when you arrive in Newark.”
Dash to baggage claim, dash back with luggage, have it ticketed to Tel Aviv, dash with it to US Customs (they do it that way between Toronto and the States), take out change of clothes, drop off luggage, dash to typically far-off gate, get on plane, land in Newark, sweet-talk reluctant gate agent into a “MISCONNECT CONTROLLABLE” hotel voucher, wait half an hour for hotel shuttle, check in, phone everyone who needs to know where I am, take deep breath and fall asleep fully clothed on the bed.
First thing in the morning I call United.
Just to make sure. But they don’t know me.
Oh, they’ve heard my name, for someone in Toronto had tried to book me on this afternoon’s flight. Except the booking was never completed. But I have a print-out with the word “confirmed” for this flight. “Sorry, sir, you’re not on it and the flight is full.”
Call Air Canada. Forty-five-minute wait.
Finally, an agent. “Our computers show a confirmed reservation, monsieur. You should be on that flight.” Back to United.
Twenty-minute wait. I’m not on that flight.
Back to Air Canada. Forty-minute wait.
“Give United this reservation number and tell them it’s in the ‘ghost file,’ monsieur.”
Call United. Ten-minute wait. “Sorry, sir.
And what’s a ghost file?” Shower, dress, check out, head to the airport to speak with an Air Canada agent face-to-face. “But your ticket with United is confirmed! It says so right here on my screen!” I notice that United is the next counter over and ask the agent to check on United’s screen. He comes back shrugging his shoulders. “That’s strange. United has no confirmed booking.”
I ask whether he can work something out with the United agent. Ten minutes later he comes back. “She has two cancellations.
Would you like me to reserve a seat?” Actually, I prefer that she reserves the seat. And by the way, I’d like to know how Air Canada can make me feel better about all this. You know, some sort of compensation. A gesture. Say, an upgrade to business class or perhaps just entry to your airport lounge. Something like that. “I’ll speak to my supervisor, sir.”
IN THE end there was no upgrade or lounge, only a meal voucher saying “MISCONNECT CONTROLLABLE.” And one more snag.
After stopping just short of the Newark runway aboard United Flight 84 to Tel Aviv, the pilot comes on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry but the aircraft is improperly balanced. We’ll have to return to the gate and move a cargo container from the front compartment to the rear. It should take just a few minutes.” To be a bit more exact, it took 142.
Perhaps both Air Canada and United can take a lesson from another Star Alliance partner. While Mark Feldman is fully aware that Lufthansa’s flights out of Tel Aviv don’t have anything that comes even close to the other two airlines’ business class cabins, that carrier runs a tight ship, so to speak.
And if there’s a glitch, they hold your hand until it’s unglitched.
Now that’s what I call “controllable.”