Reality check

When bad weather strikes, what do airlines owe you?

Winter storms are a fact of life in Canada, and they can paralyze the entire air transport system. This Christmas was a case in point, when a ‘perfect storm,’ in fact a series of them, hammered airports across Canada just as thousands of travellers headed home for the holidays.

Plane at gate in winter stormAs always in such situations, and more so in recent years as the ‘passenger rights’ movement has gained momentum, there was a great hue and cry as the cameras and microphones descended on stranded passengers. The anger of the sound bites was almost universally directed against the airlines, with little acknowledgement of the role played by Mother Nature.

What responsibility do the airlines have in this situation? No one wants a plane to take off in an unsafe situation, but as the hours drag by, questions are raised. Should airlines have to feed and house stranded passengers? When the storm abates, how quickly should airlines be expected to recover, clear the backlog and get passengers and their baggage on their way?

Let’s start with the bottom line. Just prior to last fall’s election, the Conservative government launched ‘Flight Rights Canada,’ a series of policies described as “strengthening consumer protection for air travellers.” There was little new in the announcement — it was more of an awareness campaign about existing regulations.

Traveller stranded at airportThe rules include stipulations about food and lodging when flights are delayed. If a delay exceeds 4 hours, the airline must offer a meal voucher. If the delay is more than 8 hours and involves an overnight stay, the airline must pay for a hotel and transfers for passengers who did not start their travel at that airport.

There’s one important caveat to these rules, however: they don’t apply to inclement weather situations. And why should they? Airlines don’t control the weather. Arguably, airlines suffer as much as passengers in these situations, especially during high-traffic periods. Crews can’t get to work, planes are stuck in the wrong locations, extra staff need to be called in to assist with the backlog – it’s a logistical nightmare, a financial drain and often it’s a public relations disaster.

As the situation unfolded this year, there were clear winners and losers: WestJet earned an avalanche of praise for how it handled the crisis, while Air Canada was bitterly condemned. Of the 2,000 complaints received by the Consumer’s Association of Canada on the weather’s impact on holiday travel, 90% of them were about Air Canada.

In itself this isn’t unusual. As ‘Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture,’ WestJet almost always wears the white hat while one-time government-operated Air Canada is the airline many Canadians love to hate, despite being recipients of numerous international and North American awards recognizing their service.

Plane on tarmac in winter stormDuring the December period dubbed ‘Snowmaggedon’ by the press, both of Canada’s major carriers went far beyond their official responsibilities. Air Canada paid for more than 5,000 hotel rooms and issued over 25,000 meal vouchers. WestJet spent $2.7-million on meals, hotel rooms and chartering planes from as far away as Florida to eliminate the backlog of passengers once the snow stopped. As far as the meals and lodgings are concerned, the airlines didn’t have to provide them, but they did, which in itself is somewhat amazing given the vigilance of shareholders about unnecessary spending.

There is a difference in how the two carriers approach weather situations. Air Canada told TakeOffeh that “when it comes to this issue we deal directly with our customers as each circumstance is different.” WestJet, on the other hand, says it decided two years ago that it would take care of stranded passengers whatever the reason for the delay.

“It shouldn’t matter why we cancel our flights,” says WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer. “If you’re not in your home city we will provide you with your hotel room, we will feed you. The guest experience is everything to us.”

Palmer says WestJet’s low-cost model and smaller size gives it a bit of an edge over Air Canada when it comes to dealing with weather situations. But clearly the company’s culture played a role, as hundreds of staff volunteered their time and worked long hours to reassure passengers and try to get as many people as possible home for Christmas.

On the other side, Air Canada ended up announcing an internal review of its storm performance. “The long lines, piles of delayed baggage, late and canceled flights on airport screens and frustrated customers all made for unflattering visuals for the television newscasts,” CEO Montie Brewer told the Globe and Mail. He added that some consumers were “justifiably upset” by Air Canada’s slow recovery once the storms cleared.

Last year, Air Canada earned more derision from the press and public when it introduced the On My Way program, designed to offer peace of mind to travellers in the event of weather, airport or air traffic delays. For $25 on short-haul flights, $35 on long-haul, the airline will pay for meals and hotel rooms and offer priority rebooking on any North American airline. If you are flying with Air Canada during a Canadian winter, it might not be a bad investment. Considering that they don’t have to offer those services, it actually seems like a reasonable price to pay.

But it’s tough when you have a competitor like WestJet. Asked whether shareholders were upset that the airline had spent $2.7-million above and beyond what was necessary, WestJet’s Palmer replied: “The response from shareholders has been phenomenal. One told me ‘I’m so proud. This is why I’m a WestJet shareholder.’”