Many customers who purchased Air Canada flights months in advance say they have found themselves bumped onto Rouge flights and given no choice but to accept the smaller seats and less fulsome service.
Jim Noon, who booked a regular Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles on points in March, says the company subsequently moved him to a Rouge flight without his knowledge or consent.
"It's frustrating, and it makes you feel deceived," Noon told CBC News.
The flight could prove a tight squeeze for Noon, who is six-foot-three: Rouge cabins feature slimline seats – where once there were two across, now three fit into the same width.
Leg room is also an issue, with seats positioned closer to the one in front than they are on regular Air Canada flights, and with a shorter seat length, affording less support.
"I'm a tall guy," Noon says. "My No. 1 concern is that I can fit into that seat for three hours — or eight hours — and not have to crawl off the plane afterwards."
The experience has made him swear off the carrier for good.
"I used to be a loyal Air Canada traveller, and now I am certainly going to look elsewhere."
Social media reaction also critical
Noon is not alone, based on social media comments.
The travel review site Skytrax has comment forums for every airline and the Rouge board is filled with posters complaining about getting bumped from Air Canada flights.
And it's not just those who bumped to Rouge flights who are complaining.
The new brand is facing criticism from passengers who have booked with Rouge and argue that not only is it not cheaper than regular Air Canada flights, but the cramped quarters on board make it an unpleasant experience.
"The 319 plane was cramped with uncomfortable seats, absolutely no leg room and no ventilation," J. Morton writes.
"Average height people found their knees jammed into the seat ahead of them and it was impossible to bend over to place or retrieve items from under the seat. Heaven help you if the person in front of you reclined their seat even the small degree they move."
Another poster coined a new term against the airline, saying, "I got Rouged."
On Air Canada Rouge's Facebook page, complaints are noticeably absent, but elsewhere on social media, customers are complaining the company is deleting Facebook posts that criticized the service.
CBC News also observed that dozens of critical posts spotted on Friday had been deleted from the Rouge Facebook page by Monday.
Air Canada defends Rouge
Air Canada denies the Rouge service is suffering from customer fallout. In a statement emailed to CBC, the company wrote that "Rouge flights have been very successful and customers tell us they enjoy the service."
The statement goes on to say that since the launch of Rouge in 2013, "we have received very few such concerns."
Air Canada describes Rouge as "low cost," but is careful to avoid the term "budget airline".
It calls Rouge a "leisure" service.
"The fares are largely the same," says Renee Smith-Valade, vice-president of customer experience at Air Canada Rouge, who notes that the services offered by the two carriers are also comparable.
"Air Canada has always priced itself competitively," she says.
"In the airline industry, the airlines look at what each other is charging for a fare and make sure that they're always competitive."
'A marketer's nightmare'
"Either Rouge is a real price deal at stripped-down services, or it's not," says Lindsay Meredith, a Simon Fraser University marketing professor. "Don't try to have your cake and eat it too. High prices and jammed-in service? No."
Meredith cautions that the company may find itself in trouble if it switches customers from one service to another without offering an alternative.
"That kind of misrepresentation might catch the attention of somebody like the Competition Bureau," he says.
He also warns against fuelling the increasing disaffection of customers, who may already be looking at other carriers, saying that one truism of marketing is that once you drive customers away, it's extremely difficult to get them back.
"It would be pretty much a marketer's nightmare if somebody talks about being 'Rouged,'" he says.
"The name of your brand is in the lexicon as being a term for being ripped off? Boy! That would be the kiss of death for any brand name I can think of."
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