JWR Articles: Commentary - Ticket to Ride (Source: S. James Wegg) - September 15, 2004
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Ticket to Ride

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An Air Canada post-merger travel tale

“That’s right, sir. The airport is the only place in Edmonton where you can have your ticket re-issued.” Those were the chilling words that rewarded my 35-minute wait on the Air Canada help line as I tried to change an unused ticket before the current seat sale expired.

Next morning I made the 50-minute drive without the usual feeling of expectancy that the beginning of a trip brings. Today’s was same-morning return—but at least no baggage could be lost. With any luck I’d arrive back at work in plenty of time for a productive day.

I brought my parking stub with me into the newly opened Terminal II (dedicated entirely to our largest carrier) hoping that like the Eaton Centre I could get it stamped and save at least enough for a down payment on the gas. The early morning passengers were stoically kicking their bags to the head of the Snakes & Ladders-like check-in line, which if unwound would have reached Leduc. I smiled in quiet triumph as I marched past them and went directly to the customer-free Purchase Tickets Only desk.

I quickly established my desire to apply the value of my four-month-old Palm Springs ticket against a reservation I’d just made for Ottawa. The agent nodded knowingly, brought up my file and began making the changes. I knew the fares were similar but was expecting to be charged the $100 re-issue fee.

Sounding like a priest who’d cornered a long-absent parishioner she said, “The Additional Collection will be $213.”

“But, that’s more than double! Have the penalties been merged as well as the airlines?” I cried. She laughed with me and quietly confessed to being a former Canadian Airlines employee who found her new working conditions to be similar to Canada Post in its glory days of Jean-Claude Perrault and institutionalized strife.

Despite the fact that I had never made the trip, we soon learned that the U.S. taxes were non-refundable. That was the difference. My inquiry as to whether Uncle Sam would issue a donation receipt was met with a blank stare. Nonetheless, having long ago lowered my expectation for all things connected with air travel, I surrendered my credit card, shrugged off another value-subtracted transaction and awaited my new ticket.

During this pause I had a chance to reflect on Air Canada’s unerring ability to stay in the public eye since devouring its chief rival last year. I recalled President & CEO Robert Milton crowing just before Christmas that his self-imposed 180 day “fix everything” had been achieved ahead of time. To celebrate, he’d fired 3,500 employees and raised the fares. Next he went back to his Roots and purchased a large stake in the beret-backed airline that crash landed before it had a chance to take off. But he couldn’t fix the books and, after “tipping off” 13 of his closest analytical friends that the year-end’s results would be “lower than predicted”, he was forced to grab $1 million of his shareholders’ cash to pay the Ontario Securities Commission’s fines. (Even in Monopoly© there are rules.) Fortunately, $500,000 of that will be put into a designated fund for “investor education,” thus ensuring they would not be caught again. Presumably the most recent chop of 4,000 more jobs will include the executives in charge of investor relations. But Milton will share their pain: his own salary of $1 million has been gutted by 10-per-cent.

“Who’s for Vancouver?” bellowed another long-suffering service representative to the adjacent herd of ticketed travellers. I hadn’t been “for” Vancouver in years, having endured six months there of rain, winds and Glen Clark’s home videos. Nonetheless, like the Pied Piper, his relocation song soon attracted a dozen subscribers who were sent up the ladder to the Executive Class check-in. How very un-Canadian, I thought. We’re a docile, patient people and here was intentional corporate-led queue jumping. By the expressions and oaths emanating from those who weren’t Wet Coast admirers, I fully expected an outbreak of line rage!

But their discomfort was small beer compared to mine as the computer refused to print my ticket. Three times my agent pounded, pressed and pushed data into the uncooperative program. Smiling bravely, she summoned her supervisor who was only too happy to assist rather than face the smouldering wrath of those whose destinations were incapable of getting them ahead.

My service duo set about their work as if I wasn’t there; I’d been put on hold without the cheesy music. Worse still, this extended wait guaranteed another hour of parking charges—not even the free copy of the Edmonton Journal would balance that equation. My lighthearted inquiries as to where I should submit the invoice for my time, fuel and non-flying customer parking was met with a double icy glare. Tactfully pointing out that this morning’s preferred landing-place had a well-appointed Air Canada ticket office in its downtown core probably did little to speed the process.

The morning rush finally dissipated. I remained the longest-served client in the sparkling new terminal. Like my fellow travellers, my initial smugness had departed. Suddenly, accompanied by squeals of technological triumph from my travel staff, the dot-matrix printer spat out my ticket and credit card charges without further cajoling. I quickly signed, proffered thanks and ran towards the parking garage remembering that although it was my airport improvement fees that had constructed this stalled beauty, I would forever have to continue paying for the privilege of using it.

I got back to my desk nearly two hours late. On top of my in-box was our public institution’s statistical report. It concluded that since beginning to charge admission to the very citizens who had funded its construction, attendance had dropped by more than half. In the same period our population had increased by 30%. I wondered where everyone had gone, then began browsing WestJet’s flight schedule. JWR

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Source - S. James Wegg
Businessman - Robert Milton
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