Air Canada has a policy that a flight isn’t considered “late” until it’s more than 15 minutes late.
As I flew to Copenhagen last week from Charlottetown, a trip that required 6 flights there and back, I thought a lot about that policy. And I realize that it says a lot about how Air Canada thinks of their service and their passengers.
To Air Canada, a delay of 15 minutes or less must feel “good enough.” Perhaps they even consider it a miracle to make all their systems run smoothly enough to guide a plane from gate to gate inside such a small window.
What they forget, though, is that to a traveler, 15 minutes is the equivalent of about 2 hours. Travel is stressful. There’s not only the “the plane might fall out of the sky” problem, but there’s the cramped space, the worry about the luggage, the stale air in the terminal and on the plane. When you’re waiting for a flight you’re worried about where you’re going to sit: will the seat recline, will there be enough room for your luggage, will your seat be right beside the toilet? And when the flight looks like it’s not going to be on time, you start to worry about the meetings you’re going to miss, the rental car they’re going to give to someone else, whether you’ll make your hotel on time.
All of this is amplified greatly when it’s a 7 or 8 hour flight you’re waiting for. In fact I’d hazard a guess that the most stressful part of flying, for many, is the wait at the gate.
So while Air Canada thinks to itself “hey, 15 minutes isn’t so bad — we don’t even need to tell the passengers about it,” the collected grief of their passengers, watching the minutes tick by, festers.
Rental car companies have a similar problem. I seldom get anything close to the car I reserve on rental company websites. I once reserved a Toyota Corolla from Alamo and they tried to give me a Chevy Astro. I settled for a Malibu.
It seems that rental companies think that if they can give you a vehicle with four wheels, they’ve done their job. They don’t seem to understand that this vehicle is going to be akin to a tiny rolling home for a bit of my life, and that it does matter what it looks like, that it doesn’t smell like smoke, that it uses fuel wisely, and so on. In the car rental world the cars are inventory, and so one car is, it seems, pretty much like any other.
I used to think that this sort of thinking, this sort of policy, was the result of intentional maliciousness on the part of companies, that they actually set out to be callous and unthinking. Or at the very least that their systems were simply broken.
But then this morning I stopped in at the local Rogers Wireless mobile phone dealer. I had a question about accessing the Internet with my phone and I thought they could help. I set my phone on the counter to demonstrate that I was an actual customer with a real phone.
And they picked my phone up and started to play with it. And then they passed it around the office to have others take a look. They looked at my phone — and this is easy to understand — as a simple piece of technology that needed fixing. They see a million phones a day, and this was just another one.
What they didn’t think about is that my phone is a piece of very personal technology to me. I have pictures of Catherine and Oliver on it. My email. My phone book. I’ve used that phone to talk to Catherine from across the ocean and to say goodnight to Oliver. I sat on a terrace in France and talked to my colleagues in America on that phone. I used it to find a hotel in Bourges and to give my Dad a call before leaving for Denmark.
Passing around my phone like a piece of broken inventory leaves all of that out of the equation. And it made me feel just like I feel with the car rental company thoughtlessly offers me a Chevy Astro or Air Canada runs a late flight and doesn’t tell me because in their world it’s not really late.
And putting all these together I realized that companies are systems, and customers, cars, flights, and phones necessarily become abstractions in a system as large as Air Canada or Hertz or Rogers.
Air Canada can’t feel bad about making me worried that I’ll miss an important meeting. Budget can’t worry about whether I get a Cavalier or an Accord. Rogers has millions of phones in millions of hands: their system can’t treat a phone like a treasured personal instrument because that would simply gum up the system.
So it’s not that companies are malicious, it’s not that their systems are broken, it’s that they operate on a scale that, of necessity, treats passengers the same as flights, cars, and phones: as objects to be handled, shuffled, repaired, flown, scheduled.
A Chevy Astro or an A-320 doesn’t have feelings, doesn’t get worked up about where it is or how it’s being treated, so why should a person?.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a revelation to me, but it does.