I’ve had more than my share of customer service nightmares, mostly between our 2 national embarrassments: Air Canada and Bell Canada.

While it’s easy enough to avoid Bell Canada (I use Videotron for cable/internet/phone and Telus for cell service and LOVE them both), it’s hard to avoid Air Canada – at least when flying internationally.

I have a tendency to choose Air Canada because despite the fact that they operate like a 1960s-style monopoly that treats customers like absolute garbage on the ground, they are excellent in the air and I always feel safe. I can’t say enough how many amazing flight attendants I’ve encountered on Air Canada trips, and their planes are comfortable and modern.

But my blood starts to boil and my vision gets blurry when I think about the way people are treated on the ground.

The following is a letter my sister sent to Air Canada detailing the crazy experience she had coming home from Israel this week:

To Whom It May Concern:

On June 17th, I boarded a plane for Toronto from Tel Aviv. After about 20 minutes waiting in the plane, the pilot came on to tell us that they were having issues with the starter for the right engine and said it might be a while before they start it up. He explained it was a routine issue and that they would resolve it as soon as they could. About 25 minutes later it became clear that the problem was a little more severe and so passengers started to get up and walk around.

After about 1 hour, the part had still not arrived by crews began to work on the engine so the pilot had to shut off the plane leaving us with no air conditioning. What began was a decent into 7 hours of hell where the crew lost total control over the passengers and the situation and it was unbearable.

For about an hour and a half while we waited for more information and the part (new starter) the passengers began roaming the plane freely. The door was open and the crew could not keep passengers from standing on the bridge and even walking down the stairs. At one point, there were about 35 passengers standing in the galley area and 2 in the cock pit with no pilots there.

I turned to the head flight attendant and said “should the passengers be in the cockpit” at which point she realized they were there and asked them to leave. In fairness, there was no way that she could have handled the crowd on her own but she tried. The crew was offering water and snacks to the passengers but people just kept piling into the front galley area to get air and it became clear that the inmates had taken over the asylum as the crew literally just looked at each other and gave up trying to control the matter. Myself, I was in the 2nd seat in business class so I had a firsthand view of the entire situation.

At one point, one of the co-pilots whom I had been chatting with told me there was no way he believed we were taking off because the crew would time out over the Atlantic (more than 17 hours of duty).

Eventually (after 2.5 hours), the pilot realized the plane was too hot for the passengers so he arranged for us to be transferred back to the terminal where we spent an additional 4 hours with absolutely no information. The grounds crew were about as polite and helpful as they could be but you could see their increasing frustration as they were being bombarded by passengers asking for information and they had none.

Throughout the entire time we were stuck on the ground, Air Canada did not offer food vouchers and waited until the 6th of 7 hours to offer drinks to the passengers. Many people sat in the gate area for the entire time with nothing to eat or drink and access to 1 bathroom. While we were free to roam the terminal (I had access to the Dan lounge) the passengers were encouraged to stay close for information.

Finally at about 7pm the decision was taken to board the plane. I was horrified by this decision as when you did the math…it was clear that the crew would be flying well over their allowed time. As someone that is afraid to fly, the concept of getting on an airplane with an exhausted and battered staff for 12 hours as well as an airplane that just had a problem with an engine was unheard of and so I insisted they change my flight to the next day and I went to Tel Aviv overnight.

So much for special permission and international security…

The crew took my baggage tags and asked me to describe them so they could be located and told me that my bags would be waiting for me on the other side of the security gate and proceeded to board the passengers WITHOUT telling them that they were stopping in St. Johns to change the crew. This means that after 2.5 hours in an overheated plane, 4 hours on the ground, the passengers were now unknowingly boarding a plane for 10 hours to St. Johns, X amount of time on the ground while AC changed crews, off to Toronto and then in many cases, transit to wherever they were going.

Had I boarded that plane, I would have sat at Pearson for 3-4 extra hours because flights don’t leave Pearson for Montreal until 6am. This fact was never conveyed to the passengers until I imagine they got on the plane and were basically at that point…trapped.

When we crossed through security, the agent told us that the bags had not been removed from the plane and said have a nice night and walked away. We were not given confirmation codes for the next day for our tickets but just told yes, show up and don’t worry. We did get on the plane the next day.

It’s taken me 3 days to digest what happened and to be able to put words to it. First of all, the fact that the captain let us sit on the plane in 35 degrees for 2.5 hours is awful but the fact that the crew lost total control over the passengers and cabin to me, demonstrate a real safety concern for Air Canada. I took pictures of the passengers walking freely among the galley and on the bridge of the plane and when I showed my family they were stunned.

2nd, the fact that a Co Pilot can state that he is certain the crew will time out and then have that same crew be allowed to fly is unbelievable. AC knowingly sent an exhausted and battered crew 36 thousand feet in the air with the lives of 250 people in their hands. If that’s not the definition of irresponsible, I don’t know what is.

Lastly, AC allowed a flight to take off with 7 passenger’s bags in the belly without those passengers on the plane which is a known international security risk. I understand after having spoken to the ground crew later the next day that supposedly they obtained special permission to send our bags along and so I asked there where would they be and was assured at least 3 times that they would be waiting for me in Montreal at the lost and found.

Imagine my surprise when I got off the plane in Toronto and saw them sitting there completely unattended where they had obviously been for 24 hours. Anyone could have walked off with them and when I said out loud “oh there are my bags” the attendant didn’t even look up from his newspaper. So much for special permission and international security…

I have been working VERY hard the last year to obtain Elite status by flying only Air Canada and Star Alliance flights. As I stated, I am not the best passenger because I am somewhat fearful to fly but have always had the utmost confidence in Air Canada because I was always promised that your company had strict safety and security protocols.

My confidence in your airline has been shaken beyond comprehension and needless to say the 12 hours I flew the next day were not fun. I am not sure what I will do moving forward since it’s obvious that flying Air Canada does not provide any added benefit compared to American carriers that you usually hear these stories about.

Lastly, though this was a horrible experience I do want to make mention of the fact that the following people on the ground went over and above their duties to try and make the passengers happy but there was just nothing they could do. Ariel who is a grounds supervisor was wonderful as was the ticket supervisor Nir.

They were both being yelled at and were under tremendous stress but stayed calm, never raised their voice and did the best they could. Nir also works with a young blonde girl with blue eye makeup as well as a dark skinned girl with curly hair whose names I did not get but they were both fantastic, sympathetic and tried to do the best they could.

Overall, this was an awful experience. I am deeply disappointed in Air Canada and expect to hear back from someone with regards to this. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Thank you,

Marissa Sidel