May 15, 2013

Air Canada Isn’t Collaborating With Its Employees

Early on in my career I took my first business trip to North Carolina where I participated in a ‘higher education’ conference. No, the conference wasn’t on the airplane although we were ‘higher’.

Because it was North Carolina there was even a pig roast. Sadly, I couldn’t find an apple.

20130515-221157.jpgTo get from Vancouver to Winston-Salem, I took planes interconnected by the Star Alliance family – Air Canada and United Airlines – and since that trip I very rarely diverge from the family.

I’m a loyal customer racking up (according to a recent personalized infographic sent to me by Air Canada’s loyalty program) over 2 million miles of business. Suffice to say that I’ve had a few apples in various lounges unlike Miss Piggy in North Carolina from above.

I fly a lot with Air Canada, a little bit with United Airlines and when Europe or Asia beckons I hitch on to the Star Alliance family. That’s another way of saying I am well versed with the boarding drill as well. When it comes to Air Canada I have memorized (in both official languages) the recorded message that plays before boarding the plane. It’s no badge of honour; ask the goats.

But this past week I clued into something that alarms me on several levels.

Whilst getting ready to board a flight, standing at the front of the queue as I always do waiting for Air Canada Elite members to be called, I noticed a gal in a wheelchair to the right of the desk. She was inching her way to the agent’s desk desparately trying to part the sea of able bodied humans in her quest to board the plane.

20130515-221353.jpgAs I waited — watching the situation unfold — the Air Canada attendant summoned me to the desk so I could present my boarding pass and passport.

“Elites, let’s go,” he said motioning towards me and the queue of 20 odd people behind me.

Now, what normally happens on an Air Canada flight is a call out for those needing assistance — like our wheelchair friend, parents with kids, other requirements — before the ‘Elites’ parade down the boardwalk.

I wasn’t paying attention to the message that had just finished playing. I’d heard it a thousand times before.

I responded to the Air Canada agent rather foolishly and asked, “What about the woman in the wheelchair over there,” pointing to her as she approached the desk to his left.

“They changed everything a month ago,” remarked our clearly disengaged agent. “Elites now go first, then assisted help and then everyone else,” he concluded.

I was stunned.

20130515-221633.jpgMostly because I would never put myself ahead of anyone needing assistance but in the moment curiosity got the best of me.

“Were you consulted on the decision,” I asked while fumbling (on purpose) with my passport and boarding pass.

“Do you think ‘they‘ would ask us first?” replied our now agitated agent. “We would never have suggested such a change.”

“We should let her through,” I retorted. “You clearly believe she should have that right — as do I — so let’s defy management’s orders.”

“Sir,” our agent said rather morosely, “I just can’t do it. It’s not my call.”

So, I had to submit my passport and boarding pass and enter the plane. As the ‘Elites’ planted themselves in the first 12 rows of the plane … only then did our wheelchair friend board.

20130515-221728.jpgOf course it took another agent to literally carry (you might call it dragging) this woman to her seat. The process took about 5 minutes.

As she passed me I said, “Sorry you weren’t able to board first.”

Perking up with a smile that stretched from seat A to seat F she said, “Thanks, but it’s not a big deal. At least we’re on time.”

What character.

Why does this scenario irk me so?

I obviously only have one piece of evidence; the agent’s assertion that Air Canada management made a decision without the involvement of frontline customer facing employees. Perhaps there is more to the story. But if it’s true, it’s another classic example of fiefdom based management decision making without the input, ideas and innovation of its most important asset … its people.

I don’t mind the privileges that come with being an Elite member of the Star Alliance family but boarding a plane before those that need assistance is deplorable. It reeks of hierarchy and elitism and it’s plain wrong.

Dear Air Canada, how about you start collaborating as a unified team and avoid culture crushing and employee disengagement acts (not to mention public relations nightmares) like the one depicted above?

At a minimum, go back to the previous boarding announcements and boarding process.

Next time I fly with you I’ll even offer to be the announcer.

PS. I published this at 35,000 feet while on one of your competitors aircraft.

Dan’s Newest Book

Click for details about Dan’s latest book, Work-Life Bloom.

Buy Dan's Books
Listen to Dan's Podcast
Read Dan's Column On