Flying Blind

The Hamilton Airport. Pardon me—the Hamilton International Airport. Thus proclaims the sign outside. I’m standing outside, peering at the sign, hoping to find the rest of the airport. But the barn sporting the Hamilton International Airport sign has no additions, no annexes. There are just the four gates, the tiny tarmac, the WestJet ticket counter and the cafeteria.

The Hamilton International Airport cafeteria. The special: Sloppy Joes and French fries. I have two-and-a-half hours to eat them. A two-and-a-half-hour layover in an airport with half a magazine rack and a diner out of a bad film noir. I betcha the waitress’s name is Bertha.

I’m here courtesy of Canada 3000. Specifically, I’m here, at the lovely Hamilton International Airport staring at a Saskatoon businessman’s plate of Sloppy Joes (urgh! No iwonder you’re fat!), because Canada 3000 was not satisfied with destroying itself with ineptitude. No, mismanaging itself into bankruptcy was not enough for the little charter airline that wanted to be a national carrier, Canada’s second-largest airline (what an honour), etc., etc. Nope, first, Canada 3000 had to purchase competitors CanJet and Royal, and then it had the nerve to implode.

I don’t really care that Royal was slowly hemorrhaging to death—if it was such a bad deal, perhaps Canada 3000 shouldn’t have bought it. I understand there’s a wee something called due diligence that has soured many a merger and acquisition. Ultimately, what matters is that before Canada 3000 reached out for Royal with its inept, grubby hands, it was possible to fly Royal. Now, alas, it is not.

Result: my two-and-a-half-hour stopover at the Hamilton International Airport. I don’t want to be in Hamilton. I don’t want to dis the possibly quite lovely city of Hamilton and its quaint little airport (the cafeteria, however, deserves to be dissed), but all I wanted to do is fly from Montreal to Vancouver. Unfortunately, I wanted to do so with less than two weeks’ notice. Air Canada, the sole domestic carrier at Dorval Airport, was happy to take me there. The price tag: $3,800. And that’s at the back of the bus.

I think not. No self-respecting Alberta girl, particularly not one who was trained in fiscal management at Calgary’s Bennett Jones LLP, was going to charge a client four thousand bucks (more with tax) in disbursements if she could help it. Especially if there was a $500 option.

The $500 option was a tortuous cross-country jaunt with WestJet. To Vancouver: a 10 a.m. train ride to Ottawa, a cab ride from the train station to the airport, a lovely four-hour stopover (at an airport not quite as dismal as Hamilton’s, but a bit of an embarrassment to the nation’s capital, don’tcha think?), and finally, a fairly direct Ottawa-Calgary-Vancouver flight. So far, so good. The return trip—the only available Sunday flight—not so good. First, Vancouver to Edmonton—a one-hour flight, followed by a one-hour stop in Edmonton. Next, Edmonton to Winnipeg (Dear God. How disgusting are those dill crackers? Is there a Subway or a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg? Oh, it doesn’t matter, because there’s no time to get off the plane). Next, Winnipeg to Hamilton. Finally, Hamilton to Ottawa. Night stopover in an Ottawa hotel, because i) the last train has left (there is a bus departing if you boogie), and ii) I might kill someone if I don’t get some horizontal sleep. Next morning, a two-hour train ride to Montreal. Total travel time: I don’t even want to think about it. Would I do it again? Yeah. In a heartbeat. Moral of the story: Beware, Air Canada. There is a lesson in the death of Canada 3000 that you must heed.

WestJet, a short-haul airline, did its best to get me three-quarters across the country and back for less than $500 on short notice. Yeah, the snacks they serve are abysmal, but you know there’s no food and can plan accordingly. And the flight attendants, pilots and ticket counter staff are fabulous. Plus—try this yourself if you don’t believe me—you’re virtually never on hold when you call WestJet and their online booking system works perfectly. Canada 3000’s, alas, never did. Air Canada’ not get me started on the shortcomings of the Air Canada Web site. And have you tried calling Air Canada lately, for anything? If you’ve managed to be on hold for less than 15 minutes before getting an irate human voice, you’re ahead. Can’t say I blame those poor Air Canada employees too much for projecting their negative feelings onto customers. They must be stressed beyond belief right now.

I now know why Air Canada is losing money. I needed to fly to Vancouver. I wanted to fly Air Canada. I didn’t fly Air Canada. Why? Four grand. Four mortgage payments on a condo in Calgary, seven months of rent in Montreal, a thousand bucks more than the current value of my car, cruise tickets for two, a top-of-the-line computer—or a domestic plane ticket on Air Canada.

Air Canada doesn’t particularly care that I didn’t fly it on a $500 ticket. Air Canada needs the $3,800 rush ticket if it is to ever emerge from its pool of red ink. And that’s a problem, isn’t it? I am still irrationally fond of our bilingual, national, ill-managed airline. But it looks like its time has passed, and it’s unable to get with the new program. Air Canada, enveloped in a protective governmental cocoon, reached maturity serving business travellers on bloated expense accounts, first-class fat cats and feckless floozies. But the profile of the Canadian traveller has changed. It’s me. In 2001, I criss-crossed the continent more than a dozen times and left it twice. And, you know—I’m kinda cheap. Even when I’m flying on someone else’s tab.

Air Canada’s answer to the new Canadian flyer has been Tango. Here is why Tango will fail: on a recent Vancouver-Toronto flight, the powers that be combined a half-empty Tango plane with a half-empty Air Canada plane. Air Canada passengers received hospitality service (i.e. those disgusting microwaved food substitutes). The Tango passengers sandwiched in between them did not.

That’s service for you. That’s Air Canada’s mentality. That’s the thinking that launched a new low-cost airline instead of rethinking its overall service delivery and business structure. That’s the brilliant planning that wants to give us another airline, this one named Zip, and, barely surviving as it is in an environment with virtually no competitors, open Canadian skies to American planes.

Oh, Air Canada, you’re flying blind. Will I be writing your obituary next? Can you at least stay afloat until WestJet is flying into Montreal?

Marzena Czarnecka is based in Montreal and has one bit of burning advice for our national airline. Robert Milton, are you listening? Fire whichever lobotomized monkeys are responsible for suggesting the names “Tango” and “Zip”. Fire them now, and then fire anyone who thought those names a good idea. “Tango” was bad enough, but “Zip”? Would you ever get on an airline called “Zip”? Does “Zip” make you feel safe and secure? Do you trust “Zip”? Oh, Air Canada. Please pull up your socks.