How Porter Airlines drove my mother-in-law to tears.

Porter Airlines is probably our favourite North American airline, at least they were until they made my mother-in-law cry.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have a great mother-in-law. I know not everyone is so fortunate, but I like mine very much, so this is a bad thing. Linda has an amazing capacity for putting the needs of others first, she’s incredibly optimistic – which makes the fact that she was reduced to tears all the more shocking – and never fails to post a response when I put something on this blog… I’ll wait while you confirm this if you like.

In what has become an annual tradition, Katy and her mum booked a long weekend getaway. This year’s destination – Chicago. As they’ve done over the last few years, they chose to fly Porter. In the past this has been a pretty solid way to start a trip.

It’s hard for airlines to differentiate themselves from the competition these days. With high gas prices and labour costs, price competition just leads to a race to the bottom. Before you know it, some genius at Ryanair is suggesting pay toilets. Porter on the other hand has managed to make travel a little more civilized while keeping prices competitive. Little things like complimentary wifi and cookies at the airport and a glass of wine on the plane, without asking that you get your credit card out, make a big difference.

Weather Happens

It all started with a weather delay. If you travel at all, chances are that you’ve been delayed somewhere. It’s just part of the deal. There are traffic accidents and construction, trains hit cows, planes are delayed by bad weather, and don’t get me started on those really slow walkers who drift back and forth when you’re trying to get past them. Whatever the cause, usually all you can do is just try and make the best of it.

I saw the first signs of trouble early that morning as the fog rolled in over the lake. The plan was for Linda to fly from Ottawa to Toronto’s downtown island airport where Katy would join her for the flight to Chicago. Unfortunately, fog is the island airport’s Achilles heal. Sure enough, when it came time for Linda’s flight to land, the island airport was fogged in and the plane was left circling while they waited for it to lift. Eventually the pilot announced that, with only 30 minutes of fuel left, they would be rerouting to Pearson, Toronto’s main airport. Located out in the suburbs, Pearson is 30 minutes from the downtown island airport, if traffic is good.

No big deal, right? Well, you would think so.

Missed Opportunities

Smart airlines – sadly there aren’t many – understand that most people recognize they can’t control the weather. With a little communication most passengers reluctantly accept the situation. Really smart airlines, something I used to think Porter was, know that a problem like a weather delay is an opportunity to win loyalty. Unfortunately, in this case, Porter missed every opportunity that presented itself.

Fog delay at Toronto island airport.
Delays leave seating at a premium.

First opportunity: arriving at Pearson. Ok, so you’ve just landed at the wrong airport, you probably feel a little disoriented. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone from the airline greet you, apologize for the inconvenience and let you know that, despite the weather, everything would be done to get you and your fellow passengers where you need to be. If this happens, you walk away thinking, “well, this weather sucks, but at least they’re taking care of us”. This is the kind of thing I would have expected from Porter.

Instead, the passengers on Linda’s flight were given what appeared to be a $50 flight voucher and told to ride the airport shuttle downtown where they could catch the Porter shuttle to the island. That seems reasonable, except instead of getting directions to the shuttle, the ground staff ignored them, leaving them to find their own way, and then took away their flight vouchers as they boarded the bus without explaining why. Our best guess is that they were substitute bus tickets and never meant to be vouchers at all. No problem there, but why not let people know rather than getting their hopes up?

Meanwhile, down at the island, Katy had lost her mum. Well, technically Porter had lost her. Is it really too much to ask that an airline have some idea where there passengers are? Yes, Linda is an adult and quite capable of taking care of herself, but surely she wasn’t the first person to be meeting someone to connect on another flight. At one point, a Porter staff member told Katy that the passengers that had landed at Pearson would be transported by Porter to the island. Good news at last. Well, at least until another staff member announced that this wasn’t the case, much to the surprise of her coworker.  It’s not a good sign when the staff is just as shocked and appalled as you are.

Delays at Toronto Island airport
Long lines for little information.

Not only were the Porter staff unable to tell Katy where Linda was, they tried to push her to get on the originally scheduled flight to Chicago without her mum. Katy, reluctant to leave her mum stranded in a city 500 km from home, refused. While she waited she managed to get them both shifted to a later flight. Others in the same situation who weren’t meeting someone in Toronto weren’t so fortunate.

It gets better. When Linda did eventually make it to the island, Katy happened to have left the desk to see if her mum had emailed. When Linda asked the desk if they knew where Katy was, they said they couldn’t tell her whether or not she had boarded the flight. The unlikely possibility that Katy had actually taken the flight to Chicago was the last straw for Linda. When Katy came back to the desk, she found her mum in tears of frustration.

Surprise! An Air Show.

Ok, so now they’re in the same airport, the fog has lifted, it’s starting to look like they’ll soon be on their way. That was before the small matter of the “unexpected” air show. Seriously, shortly before they thought they would finally be getting on the plane to Chicago there was an announcement that due to an “unexpected airspace closure for the Snowbirds practice” there would be a further, indefinite delay. Ok, like the weather, Porter has no control over the air show, but how can an ANNUAL air show be a surprise?  If I could predict the closure, why couldn’t they?

Please sir, may I have some more?

Eventually, they did get on their flight to Chicago. On the flight, just to throw a little salt in their wounds, they were scolded by a flight attendant. Their crime?  Having spent all this time at the airport with no restaurant they were a bit peckish. So, when the flight crew came around with only snacks Katy had the nerve to ask why they weren’t serving the standard sandwich box meals. The response? “I’ve been here just as long as you!” Again, I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason why they only had the snacks, it was a messed-up day for the airline after all. But rather than being polite, explaining the situation and offering an extra cookie, the response was more appropriate for Oliver Twist than an airline. Another missed opportunity.

In the end, Katy and Linda did eventually get to Chicago. Once there, they ended up having a really great weekend. If you’re wondering, yes, they’d recommend visiting Chicago. As for how you get there…

Post Script: It pays to complain.

Porter does deserve some credit. Not for anything they did on that day, which was largely a poor showing, but for their reaction to the letter of complaint Katy sent. Katy outlined the problems she and her mum faced and Porter was quick to respond with an apology and some flight credits. Katy and her mum will use the credits and give Porter another chance, but it will take a while before they’re back to being the staunch Porter advocates they were before.

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