Flying the unfriendly skies: tens of thousands of flights were cancelled over the Christmas period in 2022, with passengers left largely in the dark. (Photo credit: PxHere)

Flying the unfriendly skies: tens of thousands of flights were cancelled over the Christmas period in 2022, with passengers left largely in the dark. (Photo credit: PxHere)

The Editor’s Desk: Fly the unfriendly skies

When it comes to communicating, the airline industry seems unable to learn from past mistakes

Airlines have been much in the news lately, and not in a good way. It’s completely unfair to blame the horrific weather that engulfed much of North America during the Christmas peak flying period on the airlines; that was completely outside their control, although some will question whether or not they had made enough preparations to cope with at least some of what was forecast, in terms of staffing, equipment, and contingency plans.

What can be blamed on the airlines is their appalling lack of communication with the tens of thousands of travelers who were affected. Countless stories were told of people stranded in limbo at airports for hours or even days, sleeping on floors, trying to find a hotel room (often with little or no help from the airlines), and desperately seeking any crumbs of information that the airlines deigned to supply.

By all accounts, there wasn’t a lot of information to be had (or, if the airlines had it, they were making sure not to share it with anyone like, say, their paying customers). In the wake of the 2017, 2018, and 2021 wildfire seasons here in British Columbia, countless agencies learned the crucial importance of providing clear and timely information to people about not only what was going on, but what was likely to happen, having taken on board past failures in that area. I’m not saying communication is always perfect, but it got immeasurably better.

The airline industry, alas, seems not to have learned from the past. Every time an event like what we saw at Christmas 2022 occurs, airlines and airports act as if such a thing has never happened before, and end up doing faultless impressions of headless chickens. The result is always depressingly the same: information about what is going on, and why, is largely non-existent. What little of it there is is almost impossible to find if you’re sitting in an airport surrounded by luggage and watching your cellphone’s battery life dwindle as you get the runaround from people whose sole mission in life seems to be providing as little information as humanly possible.

This isn’t new. I worked for several years in the hotel industry in Vancouver, and saw this firsthand on many occasions, usually when passengers from a delayed flight were sent to our hotel. It was almost always late in the evening when this happened, but we knew the drill: one person would pull a list of all available rooms and start hand-writing reservation cards, while someone else would start hand-writing chits for meals (this was back in the early 1980s, when computerization was limited). The duty manager would be stationed by the front door to direct guests, and those of us at the front desk would prepare ourselves for hundreds of passengers who were usually tired, bad-tempered, and almost always completely in the dark about what was happening and why and when they could expect to get to their destination.

Flash forward four decades and it appears that not much has changed apart from the fact that travel by plane, which at least still had some vestiges of comfort and even elegance 40 years ago (remember being offered hard candies before take-off and landing, or hot towels after the meal, or a selection of magazines and newspapers in-flight?) now has all the luxury of travelling in a cattle car. Little wonder that airlines treat their passengers like so much freight.

It’s 2023, and we have communication methods and computer technology that were unheard of in the early 1980s. Surely the airline industry can get its act together and tell people when they can expect to make it to Winnipeg, although I doubt anyone is holding their breath. When it comes to learning their lessons, airlines seem unable to even acknowledge they have a problem, let alone try to fix it. Expect more of these communications disasters in future, and if you have to travel by air, expect the skies to be anything but friendly, if you’re lucky enough to make it off the ground.

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