I think I’ve found the bottom of the barrel of Star Alliance. While it may be painted “Rouge” on the outside, Air Canada’s new discount service made my family red with anger on the inside. Earlier this month, we took a family vacation to Europe returned from Rome to the U.S. through Canada. The routing that made the most sense – and what first seemed like a great deal in cashing in Citi points – involved an airline-within-an-airline that I had never heard of: Air Canada Rouge. Air Canada Rouge is supposedly a discount airline, but the prices were similar for the transatlantic routes to standard airlines.
The online reviews of Air Canada Rouge were depressing. Of course I only read these after booking the flights. At least we were forewarned about the Spirit-Airlines-like seat pitches and invested an extra $90 each to purchase seats with slightly more seat pitch in the bulkhead row (albeit they were jammed in far closer than United Economy Plus would ever have been). The seats ended up being perhaps the least bad part of the flight experience in the end.
Far worse were the following:
A chaotic check-in, club usage, and boarding process. At check-in, I asked twice to make sure that my frequent flyer number was entered by an employee who did not know the system. Only on the third time I asked did the check-in agent write it down on the previously printed out ticket and confirm we could use the Star Alliance Gold club (Alitalia in this case).
However, when getting to a club, I was not allowed to take in my children (even with two United club memberships and one Star Alliance Gold ticketed passenger). There was no gate listed for the plane on any board past security (an airport official said this was because “Air Canada Rouge was not set up for this terminal properly”). After having to ask to confirm the gate number, passengers boarded 15 minutes late (and no late announcements about boarding were made) in a non-orderly fashion without designated priority lines.
A Boeing 767 (80s era was my guess) that appeared to only have been 10-percent updated after being mothballed for years. The carpet and the entire interior paneling were original – dented, dirty, and with gaps on the floor and even the walls in certain places. Even if the airframe was still sound, the state of the interior was not exactly confidence inspiring at 35,000 feet. The plane appeared not to have even gone through a deep cleaning for years. The dirt build-up was a walking advertisement for any other airline with newer planes – simply from the standpoint that nothing less than two decades old could have accumulated such dirt, grease and grime even in constant 24-hour usage.
A freezing experience. The first four hours of the flight were beyond cold. I have never been so chilled in a window seat. Finally the climate control was brought under control halfway through the flight.
That’s (not) entertainment. For the majority of the passengers, the plane had no entertainment system with screens only attached to each bulkhead section. Passengers were requested (while at the gate in Rome) to download the Air Canada app on their iPads or smartphones so they could watch the in-flight entertainment system on their own device. Since most iPads are not mobile wireless enabled and global data plans aren’t cheap for smartphones, an earlier warning (e.g., an email or call) would have been appreciated for the nine-hour flight. Of course for $10 one could rent an iPad. These, of course, run out before the flight attendants got to the back of the plane.
Interns as flight stewards. The flight attendants were clearly the most junior in the Air Canada fleet. They were young and nice with clearly no seniority (or career-induced grumpiness). The oldest flight attendant in coach appeared under 30 years old. Inexperience showed – they served special meals (e.g., vegetarian) with no silverware. Special meals were also served to the wrong seats and people. One flight attendant even added ice (after pouring a drink) to a soda that overflowed onto the cart. Hot water was served with the essence of coffee flavoring. As with American carriers (but not with regular Air Canada), wine on the transatlantic flights was only available for a fee ($6.50). At least the flight attendants were more than kind and seemed equally as stuck in the position as the passengers were, crammed into a terrible old plane.
A business class with circa 1970 seats. As we were travelling as a family in coach, I did not have a chance to experience the lazy-boy 30-degree recline with four inches of visible padding in all directions. But looking at the seats reminded me of museum plane walkthrough exhibits showcasing the luxury of a Carter-era Boeing 727.
Until these concerns are addressed, my business travel guidance to employees and travel managers would be to put Air Canada Rouge in the same class as Spirit Airways and Ryan Air until changes are made (albeit with far older planes and with far longer routes). Last, Star Alliance members considering flying Air Canada Rouge internationally should be also be aware that they are flying an airline that has scrapped the bone yard for planes and is not only no-frills, but is not up to the usual standards of cleanliness, roominess, service, and overall experience of Air Canada. They should also be aware that annual club memberships and Star Alliance Gold status for club admittance may not be honored in the same capacity (e.g., bringing two children per card-carrying adult) in the terminals in which Air Canada Rouge departs from in international locations.
As final observation, unless improvements are made (all new interiors, cleaning, etc.), Air Canada Rouge has the potential to destroy Air Canada’s brand. In midflight, I asked a business traveller seated next to me what she thought of the experience. A former management consultant, she responded, “Never again, which will include Air Canada generally.”