Commoditization of Customer Service

Inside one of Spain’s Renfe 300-km/hr high-speed trains (Preferente class). Picture of the train is on the screens.

Here’s another rant for you. Some of you may have been missing my vitriol lately, so finally here is what you’ve been waiting for. But I’m hoping this post takes a measured tone, since it is more of a general statement of the state of things rather than an accusation aimed at one particular company or brand.

In the middle of our recent trip to Europe we found ourselves forced to find a way home sooner than scheduled. We knew right away that this would be a complicated and potentially expensive manoeuvre being that we were in Europe, needing to leave ASAP, our tickets were booked by my office, and our tickets were booked on points. As well, it became apparent that no insurance had been purchased with the tickets (not surprising, I never buy the insurance either).

Calling the airline we were booked to fly home with, Air Transat, we were told that since our flights were booked on points, we should call the points redemption centre.  They said that the only ones who could assist with ticket interruption, alteration or cancellation is the point of purchase of the tickets; whether that is a travel agency, the airline itself, or in our case, a points program. They mentioned that if our points program wasn’t able to assist us, they, the airline, had no way of assisting us since we hadn’t purchased insurance. We were instructed that the only option would be to forfeit our existing tickets for no refund and buy new ones (with them or another airline) at full rate. They do not offer a compassion fare or discount. Not only that, but there weren’t any seats on the two flights that could have had us home sooner (they would not discuss their twice-daily flights from Paris to Montreal). They said our only option was to go to de Gaulle four hours early and hope for standby seats at full price.

Calling the points centre – RBC Rewards – we were told to speak to the airline. After I explained the situation, they determined that insurance had not been bought and we were on our own.

Long story short, we no-showed for our existing flight and bought two-days-in-advance tickets home on British Airways. Again, no compassion fare. Ironically the only airline that did offer a compassion discount was Air Canada, whose 10% off would have brought the total for two one-way flights from Paris to Calgary down to $12,600….*cough* My feelings exactly.

In this experience it wasn’t that we received bad personal service or a lack of information. The after-hours call lines were open, honest and sincere. But I was puzzled at how the concept of helping out a customer with an emergency had become a paid-for, for-profit commodity. If we’d bought insurance – basically in some way anticipating a dire situation back at home on our first trip to Europe – they’d happily change our flights and get us home on any flight, on any airline, as soon as possible and at no charge. But because we hadn’t, the blame shifted from airline, to point of purchase, to us, with no one particularly interested in helping to solve our dilemma since we hadn’t checked “yes” on one of those last few boxes and paid the $110 surcharge.

You know what? We weren’t expecting anything to come up while we were away. No one ever is. But shit happens in life, and it’s not in these sorts of situations when companies should hide behind their ‘buyer beware’ modus operandi. The airlines need to take some sort of moral responsibility for ensuring that in calamitous situations their customers can somehow get home. No, I’m not saying drop everything and get us on a same-day plane (though that would be nice), but some sort of solution. Any assistance at all. And putting the onus on us to ‘buy’ their service and effort in and above the ticket purchase is callous.

Yesterday I visited my drugstore to fill a prescription. They told me ten minutes so I browsed the drugstore and then returned to pick it up. They couldn’t find the drug, and it wasn’t on the shelf where it was supposed to be. I wasn’t bothered though, I hadn’t called in earlier; I came in and gave them ten minutes to fill it. None the less the pharmacist apologized profusely. I said it was fine – I’d retrieve it the next day. An hour later, they called me at home and offered to have someone drop it off at my house! I again said not to worry about it. Besides, how was I supposed to pay for it? Anyway, that’s customer service.

Just imagine if I’d been asked, “in the event we can’t find your drug, would you like to pay an extra $2.50 to have someone look for it right away?”

The whole idea of ‘going the extra mile’ in the interests of customer service, loyalty, reputation, corporate social responsibility, etc. seems to have evaporated from the airline industry vocabulary. What’s more is not that there isn’t a policy in place to help a customer get home in times of need, but that they expect to make a lot of money from those situations. Flights for two people from Paris to either Calgary or Vancouver on KLM, Air Canada, Lufthansa and Air France with up to three days’ advance booking all sat between $10,000 and $14,000 after taxes and fees. British Airways’ $4,000 tickets were a real bargain in comparison. And Air Canada’s 10% compassion discount is laughable knowing the fares their last-minute customers would end up paying. Why offer it at all?

In the end I can say that we’ve learned our lesson. I’ll be booking all of my own flights from this point forward (my credit card has wonderful coverage and insurance in unto itself), and we’ve decided that while we’ve had our last flight on Air Transat, we did enjoy British Airways and will fly with them again. Great service, great seats on a sold-out flight given the last-minute booking, and good fares – regularly and without notice.

I’ve already complimented BA via their website feedback form, and I’ve sent a letter outlining our situation and disappointment to Air Transat. If their response exceeds the normal PR drabble I’ll fill you in.

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  1. I just experienced a similar situation with Air Transat with a death in our family over Christmas and a return to Canada three days early. I’m about to contact customer relations. Any results of your complaint with them and any advice?


    1. Bob, first of all I am very sorry to hear of your loss. Tragic news, and certainly even harder to deal with when you’re far away.

      Unfortunately, but rather expected, I never heard back from Air Transat. They never replied – nothing – to my letter.

      As a result, I refuse to fly on their airline and am vocal in my opposition to anyone I know flying with them. Whenever anyone asks I am more than happy to share my story. I believe this is probably one of the only courses of action we customers can take, however it may be more effective than we think. Repeat business is often one of the most important channels of revenue for airlines, who operate in a very competitive market.

      It would be wise (and it is never too late) for the airline to respond, however in their silence they are speaking volumes about their poor customer service and moral integrity.

      I wish you all the best in your communication with them, and dealing with your loss.



      1. Thank you for your condolences.
        So far my son got a little attention from Air Transat when he posted a complaint on their facebook site about how they could take our cancelled tickets, turn around and sell them again and still charge us for our new return tickets. I think it’s a variation on double dipping.
        I expect they removed his post after they suggested he get in touch with customer relations.
        Maybe social media is the way to go.

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