Porter Airlines vs Air Canada

In June of 2009, I participated in the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride, joining 35 other cyclists to ride across Canada raising funds and awareness for childhood cancer charities. We had to arrange our own travel from our home to the start of the ride in Vancouver and from the end of the ride in Halifax to home. For the trip to Vancouver, I chose Air Canada and from Halifax to home, Porter Airlines.

When I checked-in at Air Canada in Ottawa, I knew I would have to pay extra for the bike box. I was surprised after my bags were weighed that Air Canada would charge me $150 for having too much weight in my checked baggage. It wasn’t that I had too much weight it was that the checked bags weighed too much. The additional bag was a medium-sized gym bag. The gym bag contained toiletries that I could not carry on the plane. I would have to transfer those items to my main luggage. Then I could carry the gym bag on the plane and there would be no extra charge. I looked behind me at the line of people waiting to be served, felt the weight of my laptop computer on my shoulder and thought about the quality time with my sweetheart before the flight. Air Canada wanted me to open my bags and transfer items from one to the other, not to decrease the overall weight, but to satisfy a corporate policy about the quantity of bags. The ticket agent indicated that she could get in to trouble if she didn’t follow the policy. I looked at the line of people behind me again, felt the laptop, thought about time with my Sweetheart, so I muttered, “Forget it,” and paid the $150, plus $7.50 General Sales Tax. The ticket agent said that I could later apply to corporate headquarters and I might get a refund. She said she would have liked to help me, but she might lose her job if she didn’t follow the rules. Let it be known that at Air Canada, you can lose your job if you make a reasonable decision that causes no impact on the company and delights a customer into repeat business.

At Porter Airlines in Halifax, the same situation occurred. Instead of the customer service agent, Sarah Wheeler, saying that I could apply for a refund, Sarah wanted to ask her supervisor to waive the extra charge right away, but her supervisor was away from the check-in area momentarily. I could wait for the supervisor to return or I could go ahead and she would personally follow-up, request the refund on my behalf and put the money back into my credit card account. I chose to go ahead and hoped she would take care if it. I decided to use this situation as an unplanned test, unsure of what would happen, fearing a ghost from Air Canada would lose my transaction into the ether of airline busyness.

By the time I returned home a few hours later, I received the following e-mail:

“My name is Sarah Wheeler and I am a Customer Service Representative with Porter in Halifax. I actually checked you in this evening (June 25th) for your flight to Ottawa. After charging you for the excess weight fee on your checked luggage, I spoke with my Supervisor here in Halifax and he authorized me to refund the $67.80 that I had charged you for the excess weight. I refunded that amount back onto your credit card about an hour after you checked in and I felt really terrible about charging you in the first place, unfortunately CSR’s are not authorized to over-ride excess weight fees. The amount should be back onto your credit card now, and if there are any problems please feel free to E-mail me back & let me know, or call our Call Center at 1-888-619-8622. 

On behalf of the Porter team here in Halifax, I would like to again commend you on your successful bike ride across the country for such a wonderful cause. You truly are making a meaningful difference in the lives of children living with cancer & you are a motivation to all of us here. I would also like to personally apologize for charging you at all & hope this did not tarnish your image of Porter. We look forward to seeing you again & hope you had a great flight back to Ottawa.

Sincerely, Sarah Wheeler”

I had to read the message a couple of times. My head nodded as I thought, “Now THAT is customer service!” 

To Air Canada: Your corporate policy and lack of empowerment and trust for your employees to make sound decisions earned you $100, but it will cost you thousands of dollars. I usually used Air Canada because I was loyal to what I perceived was Canada’s airline. You convinced me to change my mind and my choice of airline. I recommend you read Stewardship – Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, Peter Block, ISBN 1-881052-28-1.

To Porter Airlines: Sarah’s decision cost you $67.80, but it will earn you thousands more for the number of times I use Porter Airlines and influence others to do the same. Your Customer Service Representative, Sarah Wheeler, followed company policy and procedure and saw an opportunity to empower herself by taking responsibility for a customer’s situation. Sarah is an asset to your company and knows how to turn a tired cyclist into a delighted, repeat client. Sarah, you do not need to read the book “Stewardship” but you might enjoy it anyhow as a confirmation that you are doing the right things right.
Craig Senior
CSL Consulting, Inc.

Epilogue: To be semi-fair, on 2009-10-02, I sent an e-mail to Air Canada’s customer service centre, detailing the situation and the different responses. I should not have to do this. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.