Air Canada Social Media Disaster

Air Canada Social Media Marketing Disaster anti-logoA recent experience with Air Canada demonstrates how easy it is to get things wrong, while apparently ticking all the right boxes for social media marketing.

Some big organizations get social media right. Some get it wrong. And some come close to getting it right, but then make fatal mistakes. Air Canada falls into this last category.

Customer Service Disaster at the Airport

On December 29th my son and his wife were returning to Los Angeles after visiting us in Toronto. They were travelling with their small dog, which precluded using the online check-in system. They arrived at the airport with plenty of time before their flight, and proceeded to line up in the Air Canada check-in queue. Upon reaching the check-in counter they were informed that they were in the wrong Air Canada line, and were told to go to the correct, USA bound lineup. They were also told, that since they had already lined up for some time, and were now getting closer to the cutoff time, they should go immediately to the counter, and not line up a second time. So far so good.

When they reached the second counter, the Air Canada employee there told them she didn’t care that they had already stood in line, or that they were simply following the directions given them by a fellow Airline employee. She sent them to the back of the line, forcing them to line up twice for the same flight. By the time they reached the counter again (and were sent to the same cruel employee) they were informed by the the ticket agent that they were too late for their flight! They were forced to re-book on a flight leaving nearly 8 hours later. A flight which it later turned out was delayed by a further 3 hours. They attempted to resolve the issue at the airport by speaking to a manager, but by the time the manager showed up, it was much too late for even an expedited trip to the boarding area. Not that it mattered since the on-site manager was unconcerned with their treatment by the counter clerk anyway.

Keep in mind that they are travelling with a small dog, which meant it was not even possible for them to clear security or customs and immigration before their flight since they needed outdoor access for the next 7 hours.

Air Canada Social Media Screw up

Here’s where a personal tale of woe becomes a lesson in messed up social media marketing.  Upon first impression, it is obvious that Air Canada has employed competent and professional social media consultants to set up their Twitter presence. The account is monitored, useful information is posted (along with plenty of typical corporate marketing fluff) , and responses from staff are very timely. But the airline has made a couple of disastrous implementation decisions, which will become clear in the next part to the story.

I reached out to Air Canada via Twitter, and relayed  the sorry tale of terrible customer service. The story was relayed like this:

They arrived at Pearson Airport and got in the Air Canada check-in line.
They got to the service desk and learned they were in the wrong line.
The checkin clerk was very nice, and told them that since they’d already waited, and might miss their flight, they should go directly to the front of the USA bound line, which they did.
The clerk there told them she didn’t care why they were there or when their flight was- they had to go to the back of the line again.
When they reached the front of the line again, they were assigned to the same woman. This time she told them they were now too late to get on their flight and would now have to wait for the 6 PM flight to LA.
They asked to speak to a manager.
The manager did not appear for another 30 minutes, and informed them that it was now too late for anything at all.
They are traveling with a small dog, and can’t even clear US immigration now, because they need outdoor access so the dog can relieve herself while they wait for the later flight.

There was a bit more information sharing back and forth, along with my request that the issue be settled with an offer of an upgrade to Business Class on the later flight, along with an on-site apology for the way they were treated by their employee. This is the response by an employee at Air Canada’s social media offices:

We regret to hear that these passengers did not meet the cutoff time of their flight. We always suggest for all our passengers to review the cutoff time policy published here, , in order to avoid circumstances like these. Unfortunately, all our agents must follow procedures and treat each passengers in the order they were lined up according to the right lane. Although we understand your frustration, we’re unable to honour your request. It is up to the passengers’ responsibility to ensure they’re checking in and present themselves at the gate before the closing time. /vv

I asked to escalate this to a more senior manager. Explaining that they had indeed arrived on time for their flight and check-in, and were following the instructions of one of their own employees. That had the Air Canada employee at the USA check-in desk not deliberately contradicted the instructions of another employee, they would have easily been able to board their booked flight on time. This is the “final response of the “senior manager” (JL) at the social media offices.

Hello Allan, we’ve reviewed the booking details of both passengers and the incident at the airport has clearly been documented. While we understand that this may not be satisfactory to you, kindly note that further communication will not alter the outcome of this case. Passengers are expected to arrive early enough to meet the cutoff times of their flight. We invite you to refer to the link provided previously by our agent /vv in order to avoid this in the future. We will no longer address this case further. Have a nice day. /jl

The Core Problem
(from a Social Media Marketing Perspective)

The biggest failure wasn’t entirely due to the social media activity itself. It was due to the social media department not being fully integrated into a corporate culture of customer service. For Air Canada, it seems,  the only purpose of social media is to further its advertising outreach, by mostly pushing out fluff, and attempting to add a bit of a personal touch along the way. It was never clear to me if the employees in the social media department had any authority at all to rectify a customer service problem, despite asking them a pointed question at the outset of our interaction:

Air Canada: We regret to inform you that we’re unable to arrange for an agent to call you from our end. Please send us a brief description of the issue, and we’ll see if we can assist. /lg

My Response: Sure. But I’m going to start with my expectations on how to make things right. 1) A face to face apology to them from a manager at Pearson. 2) An upgrade to Business Class 3) An escort to the front of the line for US passport control.
Is there someone in your office with sufficient authority to make those things happen?

There was never an answer to this question. Even after I answered all of their inquiries about the situation. It remains unclear to me if anyone at the social media offices can actually intervene to assist a passenger in distress.

From my interaction with the social media department it became clear that the primary corporate culture goals were:

  1. Deflect all criticism
  2. Defend the actions of Air Canada employees, even if the behaviour is egregious.
  3. Avoid any response that might cause inconvenience to employees or cost the airline money.

Fortunately, my next flight is NOT with Air Canada.



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