June 06, 2005

The customer is always ... hungry.

Last week, Air Canada was named best North American airline in a worldwide survey of more than 12 million passengers by U.K.-based research firm Skytrax (see full results).

This is funny, though not like "ha ha" funny. Here's why ...

I flew with Air Canada to Calgary last week for work. A little while into the flight, as usual, they started to circulate with the drink trolley. Immediately preceding it, however, was a flight attendant with another cart who asked if I wanted anything to eat. I was feeling peckish, so without thinking I asked for "something snacky" and ended up settling on some chips. Then a person in the row behind me ordered a sandwich.

"Huh," I thought to myself, "when did they start offering sandwiches for sale?"

This thought immediately had me backstepping logically to: "Huh, when did they start offering chips for sale?"

Suddenly alarmed, I got the flight attendant's attention and asked if there was going to be a meal on the flight.

Nope. New, month-old policy: no meal. On a four hour flight that clearly straddles the full range of reasonable dinner dining hours (even for me!).

So I bought a sandwich and fumed a little bit while some others behind me complained as well -- the woman sitting behind me claimed to have eaten a meal on another Air Canada flight just days before, but the flight attendant reiterated that the no-meals policy had been in place for a month. She eventually yielded that flights over four hours still had meals -- the passenger had flown to Vancouver -- although only until July 1 (the Air Canada website doesn't say anything about this upcoming change and pegs the breaking point at 4h30m).

So, the best airline in North America essentially no longer serves meals in North America. Not only that, but to buy food from the "onboard restaurant" -- with its "popular new innovative menu of reasonably priced items" (yay!) -- you have to have cash on you. And that's if they haven't run out of food, of course. The best airline, eh? I admit the competition isn't stiff, but come on!

Might as well be travelling on Via, where passengers have been munching on Pringles and lifeless ham-and-bread sandwiches for a few years now. Yes, the travelling options in Canada are exciting -- the synergistic fusion of high prices and poor service a true treat!

A lot of people came off the plane grumbling about the new-ish meal plan and the fact that the attendants were surly about it, to boot. It's hard to blame the attendants, given that they're in the front lines taking hits for management decisions, but this is a service industry. Either way, I think this will come back to bite Air Canada, in so much as anything can bite in our toothless skies.

All travellers want to pay lower air travel prices, but -- if you'll forgive the pun -- presumably not at all costs ("you won't believe the fare reductions you'll get on our new one-wing planes!"). I'm willing to bet that most customers would be willing to pay whatever marginal markup it takes to make meals a standard. I would like to believe Air Canada has done research proving this isn't the case, but, well, I don't. And it's not as though they've replaced the meal service with lower prices and an opportunity to pay extra for the same service.

This line of thinking leads to the model for Tango or Jazz or Cha-Cha or whatever the hell they were calling their no-frills sub-airline. You could choose to pay less for fewer services. Now, with their no-frills service being rolled up into their much-ballyhooed "simplified" 5-tiered pricing system, I can't choose to "pay up" to a hot meal. If you're at the back of the plane, you may not even get a sandwich -- even though higher fares apparently grant you a sandwich-and-snack credit (nobody told me this, of course, so I paid). Nor, according to their website, can you order a special meal on North American flights.

Anyway, back to the flight -- the final kicker was when the flight attendants came around at the end to pick up newspapers, garbage, and headsets. I noticed the headsets were going into the same bag as the garbage and, having had just about enough, said incredulously "You don't recycle those?!". The flight attendant replied: "No, they only cost 33 cents."

Posted by anatole at June 6, 2005 12:31 AM

pringles cost 33 cents too I bet... i'd rather have the pringles!

We got stuck with the same deal on our flight to Calgary. We didn't know about the new "policy".. I had to buy a roast beef sandwich.. because that was all that was left. I was seated at the very back. Like.always. Freaking seat karma. It tasted like VIA.

Posted by: Lana at June 6, 2005 10:42 AM

"I'm willing to bet that most customers would be willing to pay whatever marginal markup it takes to make meals a standard."

I'm willing to bet they're not if they're flying economy. The people who are willing to pay more to fly comfortably are already up at the front of the plane.

After all, I can't think of any alternative airlines that fly between Ottawa/Calgary that serve meals in economy as part of the airfare. Very few U.S. airlines have meals anymore either. As a means of comparing Air Canada to other North American airlines, I don't think meals are a distinguishing factor.

"And it's not as though they've replaced the meal service with lower prices and an opportunity to pay extra for the same service."

They've replaced meal service and higher fares with equal prices and an opportunity to pay extra for the same service. It sucks, but it's this kind of nickle and diming that's keeping [insert name of North American airline here] going.

I've long since stopped rating airlines based on in-flight service. They are universally mediocre (even Westjet, with its super-peppy staff, makes you buy food, btw). Afterall, Alitalia had great service in the plane the last time I flew with them, but their performance on the ground (from check-in to gate management to on-time performance to customer relations for said on-time performance) was so incredibly dismal I will never fly with them again.

Posted by: Alasdair at June 6, 2005 01:29 PM

I'm trying hard to sympathize with you here, but beyond the fact that you weren't informed, your argument seems to be that in exchange for marginally cheaper airfare, you get to ride on a plane that isn't rank with the smell of microwaved food that tastes like rubbery sand, which is somehow bad. Once you know about it, you can plan for it, and if you do that, you don't end up eating laminated roast-ish beef-esque on flaccid wonderbread. If you were missing out on real food, that's one thing, but this is airline food we're talking about here: it's been a bad joke since before I was born.

It looks an awful lot like a clear win to me.

Posted by: Mike Hoye at June 6, 2005 11:59 PM

Sorry, dude, no sympathy here. When it comes to flying it should be cheap, punctual and safe. Extras? A date by the end of it would be nice.

Posted by: Mark at June 7, 2005 01:44 AM

A simple "food not included" on the ticket stub was all they needed... and a decent sandwich shop in the Ottawa airport (sorry Timmys!).

Even our british airways flight (1.5 hours) from London to Zurich provided a meal.

Not that airline food is gourmet (again british airways... thumbs up), but it's no fun to get stuck at 20,000 ft with a 100g bag of sesame snacks.

I hear you.

Posted by: Lana at June 7, 2005 10:20 AM

Yikes! -- where to begin?

Alasdair: "I'm willing to bet they're not if they're flying economy. The people who are willing to pay more to fly comfortably are already up at the front of the plane."

Well, I was flying economy (admittedly, still on business, which makes a difference), and that's where people were grumbling and talking about a willingness for such trade-offs. There's a huge difference between paying the massive markups to fly business/first class and paying a smaller markup for meals.

I generally agree with the rest of your points, Alasdair (this is not an anomaly in the N.A. market or on this particular route, it's typical nickel-and-diming, and in-flight service generally sucks), but I refuse to believe it has to be that way. WestJet makes you pay, and I don't disagree with the concept of having lower-cost, no-frills airlines -- but Air Canada was not supposed to be that.

Mike: "It looks an awful lot like a clear win to me."

I think the poor quality of airline food is over-mythologized. For the most part (excepting, for example, several of the European airlines) it's not great, sure, but it's not inedible, entertaining stereotypes notwithstanding. And it sure as hell beats the sandwich I had. And for a wide variety of reasons, it's not always that easy to prepare and bring food onto the plane. Amongst other problems, it may not keep that well, unless they install personal mini-refrigeration units below every seat to eliminate any remaining legroom. :)

Mark: "When it comes to flying it should be cheap, punctual and safe. Extras? A date by the end of it would be nice."

I would definitely put "punctual" and "safe" at the top of my list (in reverse order, natch), but in a sense what I'm getting at here is that there may be some limits to "cheap" at all costs. I'm not sure I see a meal as an "extra" when you're stuck at 30,000 feet for a non-trivial number of hours.

For the safety of all involved, I'm not even going to touch the date issue. ;)

A general comment, though, which applies to all these points and was touched on by Alasdair: this was not a zero-sum service change. Not only is it unlikely that my ticket price has decreased by the per capita meal cost (and for some good reasons, of course), but I can't choose to pay for what I used to get.

The nature of operations at 30,000 feet makes it tricky to replace an across-the-board service (where you know how many meals to load onto the plane, etc.) with one that is less predictable (who's going to buy what?). I would like to say that they'll get really good at callibrating the on-board restaurant stocking to flyers' demands, but Via sure hasn't -- they often run out of options quite early, even on long-ish routes like Ottawa-Toronto. Which brings me back to the absurdity of the fact that you could get stuck without even a sandwich on a six hour across-the-continent flight. And that you have to pay by cash.

And that knowing all this requires that you read some fine print or visit the Air Canada website and start digging around for meal information.

And, finally, that they have the audacity to do all this and waste even one cent in an even remotely foolish way, let alone "only 33 cents" per headset.

Give me a break.

Posted by: Anatole at June 9, 2005 12:47 AM