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Culture Shock

Tom Wolfe, the best-selling author and self-described chronicler of contemporary American society had a delightful short story in the September issue of Vanity Fair about corporate high flyers who nearly bankrupted their company and are now forced to endure commercial air travel after their fleet of business jets were grounded in exchange for bailout money.


September 29, 2009
By David Carr

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Tom Wolfe, the best-selling author and self-described chronicler of contemporary American society had a delightful short story in the September issue of Vanity Fair about corporate high flyers who nearly bankrupted their company and are now forced to endure commercial air travel after their fleet of business jets were grounded in exchange for bailout money.

Wolfe’s account was pure fiction, although one of art imitating life no doubt. The consequence of the economic meltdown is that corporate travel has been ratcheted downward, if permitted at all. First-class travellers are making do with business class, while others are finding themselves pushed to the back of the airplane.

Meanwhile, some more accustomed to having the corporate jet on stand-by may now be travelling what we call “economy” and the Americans call “coach.” That fall is both the steepest and most painful. Go immediately to the back of the airplane. Do not stop in business class, do not sip free champagne.

In his story, Wolfe chronicles airport indignities such as endless lineups to check in and go through security, where shoes are removed and harmless liquids confiscated. Conditions are not much better on the other side.

When I interviewed Emirates CEO Tim Clark for the July/August issue of Wings he based his in-flight service philosophy as moving away from the “dross” he remembers from the ’70s and early ’80s with a return to the golden age glamour of the Stratoliners. Today we’d trade up for the “dross” of 30 years ago, as the so-called legacy carriers pursue an endless race to the bottom with less leg room, tasteless meals served for a price and the practice of warehousing customers on the tarmac for up to six hours, as was the case recently with Continental Airlines affiliate, ExpressJet. (Really, was there nobody at ExpressJet who could have seen the blowback of stranding 47 passengers overnight aboard a cramped Regional Jet, the stale cabin air ripe with the odour of over-used toilets and a buildup of soiled baby diapers?)

A couple of issues back in this space I had written that Air Canada’s poor customer image was “largely undeserved and greatly exaggerated.” I stand by that, but sense that indifference is sending customers to friendlier WestJet, Porter Airlines and others.

Case in point. While making an online reservation for a flight to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, a glitch on the Air Canada side of the web page after the credit card had been entered resulted in my not only having to start again, but at a fare more than $200 greater than the one previously posted.

This is illegal in retail where the price on the product is the one rung up at the cash register. It is more difficult to police on airline websites where yield management has fares bouncing up and down faster than the TSX500. But a return telephone call from Air Canada could have prevented me switching to SunWing.

More recently, on a four-hour return flight aboard Air Canada, the cabin was clean, the seat was comfortable with a swell entertainment system and the in-flight crew was professional, except I was halfway into the flight before an attendant came by with the drinks trolley. I remember when the first drinks were being served before the aircraft was wheels up, and that is when the booze was free.

To brutally paraphrase British playwright Oscar Wilde: to disappoint a customer once may be regarded as misfortune; to do it twice is carelessness. Or indifference. Small wonder that Air Canada is nervous of Emirates’ lower cost, full-service flights, or that the inside joke on how Jazz will modernize its fleet with Q400s acquired from bankrupt Porter is now as dated as complimentary peanuts.

So when does the punishment end? For some travellers vanquished from the premium cabin, a return may lag the recovery by many months if not years. Don’t be surprised if general aviation rebounds quicker. There has always been a bit of “smoke and mirrors” attached to companies showing frugality by putting their airplanes on the secondhand market, but at prices intended to discourage potential buyers. And why not? If a private jet is a business tool during a robust economy, is it any less of one during a downturn?

As for those of us who have endured the cultural shock waves of service cuts to the point where we are numb? It is surprising that we have allowed it to go on this long.


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