Rough landing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2006, 12:00am

Last week, Jeffrey Simpson, one of Canada's most prominent political columnists, used the valuable newspaper space he occupies to publicly flay the country's national airline, Air Canada. He was angry and he was merciless. It was quite a whipping.

Air Canada, said Simpson, who writes for The Globe and Mail, has become Canada's most hated company. The employees have been beaten into 'a sullen submission by salary cuts and job losses', while chief executive Robert Milton and president Montie Brewer 'sit on huge stock-option gains'. Customers are 'treated like pieces of baggage' - and lost-luggage complaints have been outsourced to India, where call-centre employees 'will render you all assistance short of help'. The company 'is becoming known for its delayed flights and poor service ... Air Canada almost never apologises, makes restitution or evinces any sympathy'.

The column appeared to have been written in a fit of pique. It turns out he had attempted to make a ticket change online but encountered only technical problems, then phoned and was told he would be charged $20 for a customer representative to help out. When he finally got to the airport, he discovered that his flight was leaving 15 minutes earlier than announced. Caught in a queue that wouldn't move because of computer problems, he missed his overseas flight.

Judging by the reaction to his column, my guess is that this will be the most popular piece Simpson writes this year. The day after his diatribe appeared, the letters pages were filled to the brim with sympathetic - and equally fed-up - Air Canada customers. 'Most arrogant and self-centred airline,' wrote one. 'I struggle to think of a company that instils so much frustration in its customers,' said another.

The trouble is that Canada is a big country with many small, far-flung cities. This is a tough country in which to operate a national airline. That's why we have only one. There are plenty of regional outfits and local air-service and charter companies, but only Air Canada covers the whole country. A recent upstart, WestJet, is aggressively competing with the national carrier and steadily expanding its routes. But, for many Canadians, there are few reliable alternatives to Air Canada.

At the end of the week, when the anti-Air Canada missives in the paper began to trail off, Mr Brewer wrote in to admit his airline is 'not perfect and things sometimes go wrong'. He made a humble plea for understanding. The company has 'been through a lot in recent years - a hostile takeover fight, a major merger, a severe downturn ... and a financial restructuring'.

But there was no mention of his stock options, though, or offers to soothe the wounded dignity of Simpson - and the thousands of others.