Oh Air Canada!

In defense of Air Canada, the national ?airline we love to hate. I don’t hate Air Canada. ?


In defense of Air Canada, the national 
airline we love to hate.

I don’t hate Air Canada. 

The admission brings gasps in polite company; mothers hustle their children away. Certain things bind this country together: love of hockey, mysterious loyalty to a doughnut franchise named after a hockey player and grumbling about that goddamned national airline. Claiming that I bear no animosity to Air Canada threatens to estrange me from decent society. I might as well go around telling friendly strangers that the weather is an offensive and inappropriate topic.

Recently, I was in Winnipeg boarding an Air Canada flight with my elderly father when he expressed doubt about whether he had checked his small bag or left it back in the boarding area. A flight attendant allowed me to exit the plane and another employee led me back up the Jetway so we could survey the lounge area together. During the flight, the same attendant asked the pilot to phone the Winnipeg airport and find out how many bags my father had checked. It left me wondering why so many people spit fire while discussing Air Canada.

I travel a lot. I’ve had good experiences with other airlines, but the bad experiences tend to follow the law of averages. Singapore Airlines has superior food and once had a big advantage with its personalized entertainment options, but now Air Canada has a similar system. Once while boarding an Air Canada Rome-Montreal flight, I chatted with two Chicago-bound passengers who explained that they go out of their way to book the first leg on Air Canada. They were mystified when I explained that their attitude would strike most Canadians as evidence of masochistic self-loathing.

Some of the hatred goes with the territory. Modern air travel breeds aggravation. A 24/7 Wall St. survey of the most hated American companies for 2010 put American Airlines at No. 1 (and United at No. 13). Of the 18 companies on the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index, four of the worst 18 are airlines. 

Most of the most hated companies on that index have something else in common: they are near-monopolies, a behemoth – private or public – that often cannot be sidestepped. Take ICBC. British Columbians seem to hate the public insurer so much that I’ve heard friends seething recently about ICBC’s anodyne advertisements touting traffic safety. Simply knowing that their car insurance money, unwillingly rendered, is being used to buy corporate advertising sets their facial muscles twitching involuntarily. 

Mistrust and fear of monopolies has reached levels once reserved for alleged Communist plots to control the weather. Try suggesting publicly that Big Oil does not really conspire to set gas prices and you may suddenly find yourself being spoon-fed by a court-appointed guardian after concerned relatives have you declared bat-guano crazy.

In the documentary The Corporation, Joel Bakan famously compared corporate behaviour to that of psychopathic individuals. And there has been plenty of monolithic commercial malfeasance to back up the claim. All of which filters down to the consumer level to feed a basic perception: big is bad.

People also love to hate government. Air Canada, a former Crown corporation, gets the worst of both worlds: socialists who hate big business and rabid right wingers who rail at state enterprise. People who couldn’t agree on the issue of pretty spring flowers all come together to hate Air Canada. The national airline may well be the institution that holds this country together.

Who profits from this anti-flagship sentiment? WestJet, certainly. My old dad was delayed five hours on a recent WestJet flight due to a mechanical problem, the sort every airline experiences. The passengers I spoke to at the airport just offered “wuddayagonnado” shrugs. I know a certain airline that would kill for a little of that indifference.