We made our mostly-annual trek to Montreal this Christmas, and got to experience both Air Canada's and WestJet's treatment of travellers. It's a bit shocking how enormously these two companies contrast each other.
As we got ready to depart from Regina on the second day of Christmas, we were ready. Kids and carry-ons piled up at the gate, eagerly awaiting the pre-boarding call to get our squirrelly youngsters settled. But on Air Canada these days, the pre-boarding call is privilege-based, reserved for those who paid extra to sit in Zone 1 and 2. The call did come for people with kids and those needing special assistance, but after the Upper Zoners, causing the path to our seats to meander through privileged knees and elbows.
The flight itself was smooth. Air Canada's onboard staff were friendly, though in a we're-paid-be-friendly sort of way. In two discernible ways Air Canada's flight attendants failed in their hospitality.
#1: Since one side of the plane had 3 oxygen masks and 2 on the other side, they explained that in the event of an emergency our infant would need to be held by the person on the 3-oxygen-masks side. Makes sense. But because my wife and I were seated across the isle from each other, we needed to pass Molly back and forth now and then. And every time this happened, a flight attendant would rush down to our seats to remind us of the policy and to ask us to change seats. I get that a safety policy is important, but that level of exactitude is unrealistic to expect of parents just trying to keep kids happy and occupied on a long flight.
#2: Part way into the flight, my 3-year-old son Rowan needed to use the washroom. Since we were seated near the back of the plane, we headed to the rear washroom first, but since there was quite a line, and since my son has only a 3 year old's ability to wait, we scuttled to the front washroom. However, this meant pulling back the veil that separated us proles from the Upper Zoners. And as soon as we came through the veil, a flight attendant met us with all the grace and sterile professionalism of the thick-rimmed boss from Office Space. "Yeah... I'm going to have to go ahead and ask you to use the washroom at the back." Wow. Really? Deny a 3-year-old when we've walked the length of the plane mid-flight and return us to the backed-up line for "our" washroom while the front one is unoccupied? Not cool, Air Canada.
We were skipping with joy to exit that crew's care upon touching down in Montreal.
Thankfully our return trip was what you hope to experience if you have to fly on the twelfth day of Christmas.
Sitting at our gate in Montreal, the WestJet staffers invited people to volunteer to check their carry-ons to lighten their loads and to expedite boarding for everyone. This warmed our experience already. "Awesome! Just kids and backpacks? Easy!"
Next, the WestJet gate staff further increased our love for them by inviting parents with small children and people needing assistance to board first. WestJet's flight was also split into three zones, but WestJet chose to serve people who need assistance before those who paid more for air travel. This meant we were able to board with minimal hassle, find our seats without Gordy-Howe-ing Upper Zoners, and settled our baggage and kids before the next wave of humans hit the plane. And to top it off, the gate staff was so enamoured with baby Molly that they asked to take a picture with her before we boarded.
And then there is the warmth of the on-board staff. The WestJetters communicated everything with joviality, from explaining how to keep kids safe to inviting passengers to collect phone numbers if your seat-neighbour happened to be especially attractive. And they served complimentary wine and beer along with the regular coffee and tea to "end the day on a good note."
Flying with Air Canada is like nursing a bad habit. Every time I do it, I end up asking myself, "Dang it! Why do I keep doing that?!"
But flying with WestJet is an experience of rationality and kindness. Those people know how to help families travel. If I can help it, we've boarded our last AC flight. No more Purgatory-in-the-Sky.