Air Canada’s check-in crackdown needs fixing

Peter Nowak on missing his flight by five minutes


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.


Air Canada’s check-in crackdown needs fixing

  1. Interesting. I’ve never, ever had a problem getting my boarding pass online from home through Air Canada. I’ve generally already completed the check-in process 12 or more hours before I actually get to the airport. Also, while it’s great that the situation resolved itself so well, they do say right on the website that you MUST check-in before certain times or you can no longer check in. It’s made pretty clear. I’d have expected someone to help me out if I was 5 minutes late too, but I’d have known walking to the counter that I was probably screwed.

    Did you get any particular error message when trying to check in from home?

    I tend to prefer to always get there super early myself, so maybe this is just me, but personally, I’m much less annoyed with having to be in the airport so early before the flight than I am with sitting on the plane waiting for the people who weren’t there on time while the crew decides when they’re going to have to take the person’s luggage off the plane and fly without them.

    • Yeah, I’ve flown AC a couple times in the last year and they seem quite happy to send you an email 24 hours ahead of boarding to let you check in and get your pass either printed out or sent to a smart phone. Never had any issues using it yet.

      The in-flight food on the other hand…

      • That’s what seemed odd to me. I’m not as frequent a flyer as the author, I’m sure, but I’ve flown internationally 3 times this year, and probably a dozen times in the last 6 or 7 years and I’ve never failed to get an email from Air Canada inviting me to check in 24 hours before the flight, nor have I ever had trouble doing so. Maybe I’ve always gotten lucky?

  2. It does seem to me that there’s a certain logic to the person on one side of customs/security not being able to check you in to a flight that you might not make if it’s hectic at customs, and someone on the OTHER side of security happily putting you on said flight once it’s clear that you’re on the other side of security already.

    Sure, this time you breezed through security. If there’d been a 90 minute line at security on the other hand you’d have been checked in for the flight, and the whole plane full of people would have been delayed while they took your luggage off the plane to fly without you.

    This comes from the perspective of someone who doesn’t mind going to the airport early to catch a flight, but I’m much more annoyed by the people who delay my flights by not checking in on time than I am with Air Canada for forcing people to check in on time.

    For every person who’s annoyed that they have to get to the airport well before their flight time there’s a whole plane full of people annoyed that someone on their flight didn’t do so.

    • With a Nexus card, the security line shouldn’t be longer than about five people under pretty much any circumstances. In the major airports, at least, they have a dedicated line and security checker reserved for their exclusive use.

      • Fair point, and maybe AC should change their policies to allow for a later check-in for those people with Nexus cards who are travelling to the U.S.

        Nevertheless, I still contend that when Air Canada says you must check-in by time X, it’s kinda silly to complain when they expect you to actually check-in by time X. My own experience of frustrations with flights aren’t about having to get there so early myself, it’s being annoyed by other passengers on my flights who can’t be bothered to do so.

  3. Blaming IT issues is a cop out. Air Canada is a poorly run money losing operation subsidized by Ottawa. If you want Air Canada fixed, stop feeding it taxpayers money in loans that will never be repaid. Tell management and unions, it is time to sink or swim.

    IT however might be a symptom of the bad management and poor planning.

    As for fees, Canada has some of the highest fees in the world. You can beat GST/HST by booking out of the USA and airport parking there is cheaper too.

    But really, my opinion is 2 cents as I haven’t flown Air Canada since the early 90s as I just don’t like them. Just got tired of the bad attitude and poor service.

    • “But really, my opinion is 2 cents as I haven’t flown Air Canada since the early 90s as I just don’t like them”

      You really could have just typed that and stopped.

    • Hard to tell if this is really a “blaming IT” issue. It seems to me entirely logical that the person outside of the security zone would be locked out of making changes the check-ins after the check-in deadline, whereas the person actually at the Gate on the other side of security has more flexibility to move passengers around rather than sending them back outside of the security zone.

      Checking someone in late and crossing your fingers that they’ll have time to get through customs and security is different from changing the flight of someone who’s ALREADY through customs and security.

    • Dave777,

      Air Canada has not received Federal Subsidies since the 80’s. Its a private airline that is publicly traded!

      Having not flown AC since the 90’s your opinion is outdated and not based on current fact! Lets face it how much credibility would you give to someone who says i didn’t like it 30 years ago, bet you its the same???
      Really is anything the same after 30 years….

      Air Canada has been voted numerous years in row recently as the best International Airline in North America….

      Seems to me like your 30 year old opinion is not worth the 2 cents.

  4. Here is a tip for businesses and group travel.

    It may be cheaper, certainly a lot faster to rent private gets by the hour and fly groups of 6 or more on private jets. Did this a few times as 8 of us needed to be in a smaller town some 1500 miles away We could have taken 3 flights to get their commercial and it would have taken 3 or 4 days traveling to accomplish, 2 days each way. But took 3 hours each way with an executive jet and cost less.

    And private jet security is much more friendly and efficient.

  5. Air Canada is an absolute disaster. As a US person who does frequent business trips to Canada and been based there twice for 2 years each, I will do almost anything to avoid. I have taken WestJet, Air North, Via, BC Ferries and even rented a car to go to Kingston from Toronto, all to avoid AC.
    I find 50% of the customer “serivce” reps are downright rude and will work 4 to 5 times harder to get out of doing something, than the original request would have taken.
    Its bizarre to me that this business is still in business.

  6. So, you missed your deadline, and paid a late fee. That’s about it, right?

    As a ” frequent traveler”, I’m surprised you weren’t aware of the change in timing. I travel maybe twice a year, and both read a news story online about it, and caught some Twitter action on it as well.

    But i guess you have column space to fill.

    • To be fair the blogger, yes he missed his deadline then paid a fee.
      Then was treated poorly (standard fare for this airline) by the gate agent, had to spend $79.00 for an later flight, then got to the gate where the agent got him on his original flight. Thats when he realized he had been lied too by the first agent when she indicated the “system had been locked down”.
      The point is between AC’s ridiculous interpretation of customer service, a bunch of employees who hate the company, hate the job and hate the passengers and a badly designed system he had to go through a big hassle.
      The above is precisely why I will avoid AC to a perfect. I started to take pictures of rude AC employees with my cell phone when I had to deal with them, then threaten to email the complaints department with their photo. Days later, I then got a call from some mental midget in corporate security demanding I stop.

      • “a bunch of employees who hate the company, hate the job and hate the passengers”

        That’s a pretty large assumption there.

        Maybe the counter person had a bad day? Or the blogger misheard or remembers incorrectly? These are also possibilities.

        As for taking pictures of staff? Dude, you’re “that guy” .I’m sorry, but you are. No help for you.

      • The agent didn’t lie, her computer at check in would be locked out of printing boarding passes after the cutoff. Gate agents have more leeway in the computer system and can move people from flight to flight, gate to gate so they can handle irregular-ops beyond security rather than to send people back out to get a new flight. It is unfortunate that the blogger had the run around, as it were, but you know what would have solved all that? He could have been on time.

        • That’s my understanding too.

          It does seem that the agent at the check-in counter was unduly rude, but it hardly seems fair to me to accuse her of lying. The reason the person at the check-in counter outside of the security zone can’t check you in past the deadline, while the person standing at the departure gate INSIDE the security zone CAN move you seems obvious to me. Moving you to a new flight after you’re checked-in and are through security standing at the gate is entirely different from checking you in to the flight while you’re still on the wrong side of security/customs.

          Sometimes, you fly through security. Sometimes it take 90 minutes to get through. If the person at the gate checks you in with 55 minutes to go, and you run in to the second scenario, then everyone on the plane has to either wait for you to get through security, or (more likely) wait for your luggage to be removed from the plane because you’re still making your way through security, and it’s time for the plane to take off.

          My personal annoyance with flights has always been not of the “why do I have to be here so early before the flight” variety so much as the “why can’t people follow the instructions and check in when they’re supposed to” variety. The last time I was at Pearson I must have heard them warning two dozen different people who hadn’t made it to their gate yet that their flight was going to leave without them if they didn’t present themselves immediately at their gate. Now I’m wondering how many of those people who were holding up their planes were from flights on airlines less stringent in their check-in polices than AC is, and were still in security after checking in with less than an hour of leeway.

    • He walked through security assuming that he would be on a later flight. Right now my Mother-in-law is in Whitehorse planning to board a little bombardier to fly to Vancouver at 5:50 am. There’s no customs issues. There are no security line-ups to speak of. Yet she has to get registered by 5:05 am. She can’t do an advance boarding pass because she has checked luggage. This requirement, in her case, is nutso!

      My wife says that this is the new reality. I’m like, “no way”. Well, reading this account has me save face, and see my bleary eyed mother-in-law set her alarm for 3:30 am.

      Air Canada sucks. This article is useful.

  7. As a frequent flier between Vancouver and Toronto on a weekly basis, AC’s on time performance is excellent with a few delays due to thunderstorms or a mechanical issue with the plane (as long as its fixed i’ll wait)I check in online 12 hrs before my flight and get an electronic boarding pass and go right to the gate. As for some rude employees its like that anywhere starbucks, loblaws, united, ect. I prefer AC over westjet because of their seat pitch and in-flight entertainment which makes a huge difference on a 5 hr flight. Getting upgraded to business class is great once in a while….flying is like taking the bus now a days. Gets you from A to B.

  8. Peter, as someone very familiar with the Industry there are a few issues that need to be addressed in your article. First, Check-In agents do not have access to check a passenger in after the 60 minute cut off for US destined flights. The Computer system automatically transfers the flight from Check-In to Gate Control. This means only the gate agent has access and control from this point onward and check in is closed. This is done automatically. The reason it is done automatically and not manually is because in the past agents would open the check in and allow passengers to check in after the cut off times, and those passengers would usually not make it to the flight in time and their baggage would and then the flight is delayed until their bags are found and removed.

    On a side note, I also have Nexus, but having the ability to reduce my transit time through US Customs does not make me or anyone exempt from following the airlines rules. Rules that are themselves put in place to deal with the masses to ensure on time performance.

    My question also goes to you. Why not just actually show up at a reasonable enough time to check in. If 98 percent of all other passengers can manage to meet the requirements of having checked in prior to the cut off, why are you the exception to the rule? At one point do those who choose to take calculated risks that the rules will be bent, or “don’t apply to them” have to accept that in fact the rules do apply. All airlines appreciate the loyalty of a frequent traveller. However with loyalty I believe comes a certain amount of responsibility. Traveling as often as you do, knowing what you know and being as loyal as you are….why did you choose to not ensure your followed the rules you knew applied to you as equally as to anyone else?

  9. There are more limitations checking in late when flying to the USA (the system does get locked out after the cut off time) than there are within Canada and part of that are the rules of Air Canada and part of that are the rules imposed by the United States, especially when flying to Washington, D.C. (due to the White House being there and post 9/11 securities).

    On another note, please be on time, preferably early to your flights. If you are catching a bus or train and were five minutes late, the bus/train would already have come and gone and you would be rebooked for the next one. I don’t understand why people think its ok to arrive late to check in for a flight and then are surprised and angry when there are consequences.

  10. Peter, could you explain more what your issue was with checking in online in the 24 hour window? I’ve flown a fair bit and have never had any problems with that.

    • One part of the equation has not been discussed. I have seen people standing in line for 15 min to 30 minutes denied check-in because the “computers shut down” at the prescribed time & they did not reach the agent in time. Who’s fault is that? Also, last year I did an on-line check-in, received my boarding pass and upon arriving at Pearson Airport was funneled into the regular line since there was a “problem” according to the AC passenger doing the redirecting. Lastly, one trip I arrived exactly three hours ahead of take-off time only to find no agents on duty. Thirty minutes later they started to drift in and have an animated discussion amongst themselves prior to finally getting to work about 20 minutes later. What if a customer who had been waiting in line was subsequently denied boarding due to the terminals shutting down? There is an implied responsibility for the check-in staff to perform better! It is not always the fault of the customer.

  11. So we really need another article about the perils of airline travel??? Mr. Nowak criticizes Air Canada’s on time performance but, even now that they’ve gone “from worst to first” in that category, he’s still not happy…because it inconveniences HIM! Mr. Nowak…you’re not the only one looking for “flexibility” – you may be speedy but the guy behind you got stuck in traffic and the person behind him has no luggage and the person behind him REALLY needs to get on that flight and and and…it never ends. So, there’s a cutoff. Air Canada carries 30,000,000 + customers a year and most seem to be able to entertain themselves for the few minutes of idle time between customs/security and boarding. Hey…you could write one of these silly articles while you are waiting! And…if your time is too valuable to arrive early for a flight, I’m sure Air Canada won’t miss you and “the wife”!

  12. Hey Dave 777 – Air Canada is not money-losing…they just had the best quarter in their history. As for Air Canada being subsidized by Ottawa…do your homework – they haven’t been a crown corporation for 25 years. And, if you haven’t tried a product in 20 years…I’m not sure you are in any position to comment.