BUSINESS

Air Canada Service Agents Call Carry-On Crackdown Too Unpleasant

10/31/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/31/2014 05:59 EST
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It’s been a month since Air Canada launched its carry-on crackdown where customer service agents stop and confront travellers at check-in to ensure their cabin bags meet size limits. Bags that don’t make the cut now must be checked.

The move has made some passengers hostile. And a number of agents find crackdown duty so unpleasant, they don’t want to do it, according to Air Canada service agent and union representative, Sheila Fardy.

And it may be about to get worse. This Sunday, Air Canada starts charging $25 for the first checked bag for domestic economy-class travel.

Fardy says Unifor, the union representing the agents, has asked the airline to recruit only willing volunteers to do the job which she describes as “horrible.” She says, generally, agents get to “bid” on customer service shifts with the most senior staff getting priority. But, so far, she adds, Air Canada won’t let workers have a choice in whether or not they are tasked with inspecting carry-on bags. Consequently, says Fardy, the union “will grieve it unless we can come to a solution.”

The crackdown has upset and even angered some passengers. “You have a lot of unhappy customers today,” a distressed traveller informed a stoic Air Canada agent after she learned her bag — which she’d taken on board for years — didn’t meet airline requirements and had to be checked.

Hard to cope

“Some agents are having quite a difficult time with [the job],” says Fardy, who works at Toronto’s Pearson airport — the first airport to tackle the crackdown.

"Some passengers have been quite abusive,” she says. “Passengers can be quite aggressive and swearing and stuff like that.”

As a lead agent, Fardy says colleagues have complained to her about the gig: “I've had people walk up to me and say, 'Sheila, I've been doing this for four hours, get me the frig out of here.'”

“People push by them, are rude, they invariably give you a list of all the other times I brought that [bag] on board an aircraft,” adds Fardy. She notes that most passengers are pleasant and co-operative but “the bad five per cent can make for a difficult day.”

Looking for volunteers

Fardy believes allowing workers to bid on the job would solve the problem. She says more junior staff would volunteer for the gig because they don’t have much say in their shifts and signing up for the job would give them more stability.

“Somebody with two years who doesn't have enough seniority to do anything, they'll take it,” explains Fardy. And, she adds, everyone benefits because “if somebody chooses it, they'll at least know what they're in for. They'll be less resentful.”

Air Canada says, so far, the crackdown has been “highly effective. We have had a great deal of positive feedback from customers who appreciate that [airline overhead bin] space is being apportioned more equitably,” says spokesperson, Peter Fitzpatrick.

CBC News repeatedly asked Fitzpatrick for a comment about the union’s request to allow workers to choose if they want to police carry-on bags. We did not receive a response in time for publication of this story. 

Why the anger?

Aviation analyst Fred Lazar says Air Canada’s crackdown has sparked passenger anger because the airline hasn’t consistently enforced its carry-on limits in the past, so some travellers are taken by surprise. “Basically [the airline has] looked the other way and front-line employees are [now] going to be the brunt of the resentment by passengers.”

But Lazar believes Air Canada will continue its crackdown and, in six to nine months, “most [passengers] will become accepting of it and the hostility will die down.”

However, the York University professor predicts heightened short-term hostilities starting this Sunday when the airline starts charging the new $25 checked bag fee. That means some travellers with carry-on that exceeds the size limits will also be hit with an extra charge. WestJet began charging a similar fee on Thursday.

Lazar estimates the checked bag charge will generate tens of millions of dollars in extra revenue for Air Canada. He suggests the airline could appease disgruntled front-line employees by offering them a portion of the profits: “They should somehow share in the additional revenue that should be generated when passengers are forced to check in and pay for carry-ons.”

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