The Holiday Season can be a difficult one for air travel, especially in countries where winter storms can add to the havoc of flight delays, like in Canada. That air travel becomes unnecessarily stressful for travellers when the airline fails to communicate effectively with their travellers or consider their experience in a respectful manner.
This is what happen in Calgary International Airport (YYC) Sunday morning, December 18th, 2022 for many travellers flying WestJet on the first flight of the day out of Vancouver International Airport (YVR) landing in Calgary, WestJet’s headquarters, to make connecting flights to other destinations. I recount what happened below, causing undue stress and exhaustion for many travellers, their children and their pets, due to a lack of communication on the part of WestJet and in some instances a lack of respect and empathy while WestJet travellers waited in line, in some cases upwards of 8 hours, to speak to a WestJet attendant as the airline had instructed them to do. Still stunned that among the events on this day, one attendant ripped up a couple’s tickets right before my eyes. Why? Because they had reasonably asked to speak to a manager. Read on for the full story below.
The Friendly Skies that Canadians Fell in Love With
Before writing further, I should state that I have long had an air travel crush on WestJet, based on their motto of the “friendly skies”, which they lived and represented by creating an air travel experience in which WestJet’s personnel were warm, welcoming and friendly – being ‘down to Earth’, rather than carrying airs about themselves – treating guests with humour and respect – and taking great delight in their furry, four-legged passengers. They were a needed breath of fresh air in the Canadian air travel options, becoming many Canadians go to airline, and why I’ve written before about the Friendly Skies. Sadly, in recent years, the WestJet friendly skies experience has become less and less friendly. This is something that I and other travellers have noticed bit by bit, and was really magnified by the way Sunday December 18th, 2022 played out in Calgary International Airport.
My Story with WestJet at YYC on December 18th, 2022
The first snowflakes of a winter storm coming from Manitoba fell as we boarded our 6 am flight from Vancouver to Calgary. For safety reasons and according to some a lightning strike, this meant we were delayed by 1 1/2 hours on the tarmac in Vancouver. Despite most people on the plane having connections in Calgary that were now tight or missed (based on their departure times), everyone on the plane remained calm and in good humour. As we landed in Calgary, many of us received emails or voicemail messages telling us that WestJet had rebooked us on to different flights. In my case, this was a flight for 2 days later. An announcement came over the intercom, letting those travellers with connections to go to ‘Gate X’ if they were on ‘X flight’ and the rest of us to go to WestJet Customer Care at B35/36 in the Calgary Airport.
Myself and a number of other members of our flight did as we were told and joined a very long queue wrapping around the airport lounge at B35/36 waiting to speak to WestJet Assistance to find out what our options were, and for those of us with rescheduled flights days later, what the plan was in terms of an unexpected stay in Calgary, in many cases with children and pets. You can see that line in the TikTok video below that I filmed shortly after I first joined the line.
@ericahargreave #Calgary Airport on Sunday morning, December 18th, 2022 before the storms in Western Canada got really bad. We followed our @westjet flight attendants instructions to queue up to speak to Customer Assistance about our missed connections. For me that ended up being a 6 1/2 hour queue (8 hours for a family behind me) with no communication from #WestJet that entire time, only to be told by WestJet that if we were on the first flight of the day from Vancouver the airline would not help with delay related expenses, as they said the delay was the responsibility of @yvrairport. No managers were available to speak with concerned travellers, and one attendant ripped up a couple’s ticket for asking to speak to a manager. #yyc #yvr #airtravel ? original sound – Erica Hargreave
As we waited, we made friends with the people around us in line, took turns watching each other’s stuff, as we took washroom breaks, got coffee, bought lunch … etc. One hour became two, two hours became four. I was surprised that no one from WestJet came around with water, food vouchers, or to check to see if the number of children and pets in the line needed anything. Apparently I was not the only one that day to wonder that.
As five hours approached, and we got closer to the flight board, we began noticing it was lit up with Yellow Delayeds, and an increasing number of Red Cancelleds. We learned that the young fellow flying from Victoria to Saskatoon, had already spent the previous night in the airport at YVR due to a missed connection. He actually made it to his connection on time today in Calgary, but they turned him away at the gate, saying he’d already been rebooked on another flight later in the week, so could not board the plane. Others around us mentioned the same had happened to them. Looking at all the delays and hearing these stories, made me wonder if my connecting flight had still been on the ground at the airport when we’d disembarked our first flight, as we had not landed very long after its scheduled departure time.
Soon it became pretty clear that the flight delays had less to do with the weather, and more to do with a staffing issue. They were waiting on a flight crew, a pilot, baggage personnel, someone to de-ice the plane … etc. Perhaps this is why for most of our time in this crazy, long line up, there have only been two attendants at the desk helping people.
Patience among my neighbouring travellers began waning at the 5 1/2 hour mark, as we entered the actual cordoned off area of the line towards the desk. We were worrying about our pets and our children, were exhausted, and in my case with my chronic pain, it now hurt to breath and speak. This is when we started realising that perhaps my assumption from past experiences, that if we were delayed by days that the airline would take responsibility for our hotel and a per diem for food, might be incorrect. It would seem that they were providing hotel and food vouchers for some flights, but for our flight from Vancouver they were blaming Vancouver International Airport (YVR) for the delay and the missed connections (even though some of us could have made those connections, had WestJet not cancelled and reissued our tickets for different flights). It also became apparent that not all travellers were being treated with respect and the compassion that they should be, given that they just spent hours waiting in a line up as instructed by WestJet. Many, like Katie Leblanc from Edmonton, were being told that even though WestJet was now rescheduling them on flights that might be days later, WestJet was not going to help them with that expense.
A couple headed for Montreal (Gabriel Lainesse and his fiancé) and I decided to stick close to one another in this process, in case either of us needed help. After 6 1/2 hours, we along with a couple of other people in line, were invited to a side desk to get our travel sorted. I was fortunate to get a lovely and compassionate attendant by the name of Mark helping me. He was dealing with the issue that I was on one of the flights that WestJet was currently NOT offering vouchers for hotels and food, despite them rebooking my flight for two days away, so while rectifying that was out of his control, he began trying to find me an alternate solution, as well as give me my options for remitting my expenses to WestJet should I have to spend the night in Calgary.
The attendant ripped up Gabriel and his fiancé’s rebooked tickets to Montreal in front of all of us!
Meanwhile Gabriel and his fiancé had an attendant who was being less than polite and helpful to them to the point that I lost my cool, and told him that none of this was okay. Gabriel reasonably asked to speak to a manager, saying that if WestJet was not going to provide help, why did they not tell us that when we disembarked our plane, as opposed to telling us to wait in this line up for 6 1/2 hours. Had we known earlier, it would have been easier to find pet friendly hotels and the supplies our pets would need for an unexpected overnight stay. At that point the attendant ripped up Gabriel and his fiancé’s rebooked tickets to Montreal in front of all of us! Gabriel asked him to please reprint the tickets, he refused and told them to rebook online or through the app. We all stood there utterly amazed that someone would be so spiteful to make a difficult situation worse, simply for asking to speak to a manager. It would seem that we are not alone in such an experience on Sunday, as Ámani tweeted that she’d had a similar experience that day with WestJet’s customer service over the phone.
I turned to Mark (my attendant) and asked him to reprint Gabriel Lainesse and his fiancé’s tickets. He said he would. Not only did Mark reprint their tickets, but he tried to find them a better option. He was successful with that with me, getting me on the red eye to a neighbouring city to where I was headed. After he got all of us sorted, without being prompted he said he’d go and try to find us a manager. Unfortunately he was not successful in finding a manager, but did let us know where to report our concerns, and we were appreciative that he tried. Mark represents everything that I have loved over the years about WestJet, someone that is there to help with care and compassion. I am glad there are still WestJet employees like that, but I am sad that this is no longer the WestJet standard.
All the many difficulties that the WestJet travellers at Calgary International Airport were dealing with on Sunday December 18th, 2022, could have been made a lot easier with upfront and transparent communication from the start from WestJet, as well as proactive compassion and care for stranded guests in those long WestJet Assistance lines. When something like this happens, it goes a long way to have someone come around with water, a hot drink, and a snack. Ask “Do you need a cup for your pet to drink or eat out of?” “Would your children like some colouring sheets to occupy them while they wait?” These are simple, inexpensive gestures that make a world of difference, as they make people feel seen and cared about. And don’t waste people’s time. If you have no intention of helping them with their delay related expenses, tell them early on, so that they can begin to make their own arrangements before they are too tired and their options become limited.
As for the end of my story? I had until midnight in the airport to feed and water myself, and take several trips to the pet relief area in the hopes that my cat Ella would use the artificial grass and hydrant, but cats are particular about where they relieve themselves and like to be tidy and bury it in a hole. It’s too bad the pet relief are doesn’t have a sandbox. Both Ella and I made more friends, and heard more stories of missed connections and flights rescheduled days later. It seems this was not just a tale from December 18th, 2022. With the other tales we heard, there seemed to be a running theme of understaffing.
Ella and I happily boarded our midnight flight with no further delays, then nervously sat on the tarmac for another 2 1/2 hours, due to first a lack of baggage handlers to load our plane, and then a lack of de-icers to de-ice our plane. It was with great relieve that we did eventually take off (and later land). As I watched my second sunrise from the air from my ‘travel day’ across Canada, I said a silent thank you to Mark that Ella and I would soon be home for the holidays.