First Air: passengers come last


Good managers recognize good will for what it is: a precious commodity to be cultivated carefully one client at a time in those rare moments when chance requires them to actually live up to their own corporate slogans.

First Air officials like to talk a lot about the importance of customer service, but one wonders if people at company headquarters in Carp, Ont. are actually able to distinguish between a paying passenger and a bag of mail.

Given the opportunity earlier this week to choose between doing the right thing and following their own hidebound internal writ, First Air managers demonstrated to this reporter that contempt for passengers flourishes in the Baffin region, where Canada’s third-largest airline enjoys a monopoly.

Scheduled for a return flight to Montreal on Monday, a passenger and friend who was on holiday and visiting Iqaluit arrived at the First Air counter without the return-coupon portion of her round-trip ticket.

The receipt and ticket stub still tucked into her boarding envelope showed clearly that the expensive round-trip fare had been duly paid for in advance through a Montreal-based travel agency.

A check-in clerk at the First Air desk — who was sympathetic and polite — thought that the missing coupon had likely been removed in error and possibly discarded by airline employees who had processed ticket and boarding pass at Dorval some 10 days earlier.

Sadly, common sense was abandoned at this point in favor of First Air’s bumbling repair-manual management style.

After a wishful call to Montreal on the off-chance that the missing coupon had been discovered and put aside, the clerk disappeared to consult with her betters in Carp as to how she should proceed. The two passengers fully expected her to emerge at any moment with instructions to issue a boarding pass.

Instead, the passengers were dumbfounded when the clerk returned to make the following response:

It turns out in these cases that First Air procedure is to bar the passenger from boarding the jet on which she booked her flight and for which everyone knows she paid.

Now get this: Until she has shelled out the full fare for an extra one-way ticket, the accounting department will “stay happy” until the airline’s crack team of forensic administrators goes about tracing the missing coupon and filling in all the necessary forms that missing coupons incur.

Once the paperwork is completed and the accountants are satisfied that a bag lady in Montreal didn’t pluck the unused portion of the ticket from a trash basket and mail it to an impostor in Iqaluit travelling southbound on the same jet, a full refund will be issued.

Caught with no time left to protest further, the airline had its way with our unsuspecting travellers. Out came the credit card and the purser rang up an astonishing $1,019 bill for the surprise third leg of our passenger’s two-way trip.

Surely only irresponsible monopolies such as First Air can afford such disdain for their customers. Corporate sloganeers are fond of referring to First Air as “the airline of the North,” but the company utterly failed to show these customers that it is worthy of the title.

Indeed, the airline’s miserable customer service performance on Monday came after three days’ of mechanical problems and late arrivals that helped botch the most important weekend of the year for Nunavut’s business community — their annual trade show in Iqaluit.

Air transportation is too important a service in northern communities to be run so poorly. It’s time for First Air’s southern managers to overhaul their top-down bush-pilot mentality and to recognize that good customer relations is an asset to be earned, not an obstacle to be overcome.

It’s no secret that the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce is preparing a submission to Transport Canada. In that submission they plan to request that Transport Canada conduct an investigation into First Air’s recent fare and cargo rate increases to determine if they’re reasonable.

The BRCC should waste no time in doing this. Since monopolies are immune from the discipline of the market place, consumers have only government regulators to turn to. DW

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