Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Planes and the Trains

August 17, 2008

Soaring over Manitoba in a Westjet plane, I'm reading a Globe and Mail report on Westjet's corporate performance. The company's second-quarter profit jumped 162% to $30.2 million, and the company is about to launch a series of ads taunting Air Canada, though the ads won't mention the rival airline.

Westjet allows two checked bags for free, and makes no charge for booking through its call centre; Air Canada charges $25 for each. Westjet's charges are lower for all manner of things, says the Globe, “from overweight luggage to transporting pets.”

All true. Our dog MacTavish is in the belly of this plane, and he's a deal-clincher. Air Canada won't carry pets at all, nor will it carry unaccompanied children. So, given a choice, our family will never again fly Air Canada.

We also find Westjet's people refreshingly good-humoured and accommodating, just as their TV ads promise. For example, during our three-hour stopover in Toronto, can we take MacTavish out to stretch his legs, drink and relieve himself?

You bet, says the Westjet agent. It'll take about 30 minutes to fetch him, and you have to return him an hour and a quarter before the flight, but that still gives you lots of time. Wait right over there. I'll call the baggage handlers.

The last time we tried this on the dour bureaucracy of Air Canada, the response was No, Absolutely not. Go away. Don't bother us. We're busy – we're running an airline here.

Hello, Air Canada? You've made it very clear that you don't want our business – and we got the message. We're gone. And you're losing money, while Westjet turns a profit. Can you connect the dots?

Still, Westjet is merely the best version of a fundamentally nasty experience, and an environmentally-reprehensible one as well. Airliners, says George Monbiot, produce emissions per person-mile which roughly parallel those from car travel – but the number of miles a passenger flies is enormous. On one family visit to Vancouver, Marjorie and I probably covered as many miles as we would in an entire year of driving in Nova Scotia.

In Europe, by contrast, high-speed electric trains are beating the airlines hands-down on trips of 1000 km or less. This development is directly due to shrewd investments by the French government, which poured money into Trains à Grande Vitesse – electric trains which can travel at 320 km/h, and routinely average 280 km/hr. The next generation will be faster; prototypes have hit 575 km/hr.

Trains race from the heart of London to the heart of Paris, via the Channel tunnel, in just over two hours. The TGV network runs all over France, and has revitalized the relationship between Paris and the provincial cities. The system now reaches London and Brussels, and will soon reach Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Similar trains operate in South Korea, Japan and Spain, and are planned for Argentina, Italy and Morocco.

Imagine such a service here, in a country once laced with railways. At 280 km/hr, a TGV train could take you from Halifax to Charlottetown or Fredericton in about an hour, to Quebec City or Boston in under four hours, to Montreal in under five. Downtown to downtown. No long waits at security, no humping your baggage on and off buses or limousines, no trouble with your ears. Leave Halifax at 8:00, arrive in Charlottetown by 9:00, do a day's work and be home for a late supper.

Even to Montreal, a TGV train would challenge the airlines. A flier spends at least an hour getting to and from the airports, another hour or more getting through security and waiting for the flight, and ninety minutes on the flight itself. Three and a half hours minimum, and most of it spent waiting, being herded or undergoing indignities. Personally, I'd rather spend five hours watching movies, reading a book or working at my laptop.

But a TGV is one thing in France, with a large population and short distances. In Canada, could a TGV compete with intercity air travel?

It might. Air travel is affordable while fossil fuel remains cheap and available – and $140 a barrel is still cheap. When oil is $400 a barrel, how affordable is the plane? Electricity for the TGV can be generated from fossil fuels, yes – but also from wind, sun, running water, the waves, the tides. And while oil prices are rising, the cost of renewable energy is falling.

With a Maritime TGV network, one big airport could serve the whole region. How much would that save? And if the airlines had to bear the true cost of their massive emissions – and sooner or later, they will – their ticket prices would, um, soar.

Someday, this country will wake up and hear the train whistle. Meanwhile, book me on Westjet.

-- 30 --


Flytdeck said...

It appears the economics of air travel with the high fuel prices is making a significant impact on the number of operating flights. Economics is driving a green initiative!
A couple of items that are not quite correct. First, the statement that Air Canada does not carry unaccompanied minors, From the Air Canada website: More than 10,000 young travelers fly unaccompanied with Air Canada each year. And regardless of whether they're travelling on a short flight, or are embarking on a longer journey, our Unaccompanied Minor (UM) service ensures that children travelling alone receive the best of care, and are escorted by our highly-trained staff from the moment they arrive at airport check-in until they reach their destination.

Regarding travel with pets: For travel on flights within Canada and flights to and from international destinations, including flights to and from the U.S.A., you must pre-register your pet for travel on the same flight as yours by contacting Air Canada Reservations within 24 hours of booking travel. Please note that temperature controlled and ventilated baggage compartments are available only on certain aircraft. Please refer to Additional Winter Restrictions listed below. Be sure, also, to check specific government regulations of any countries you are travelling to with your pet.

As a long term (VERY long term) Air Canada employee, it is discouraging that my company has not met your expectations in the past. I hope you made your dissatisfaction known and allow us to rectify the problem(s). I am in the operations side of Air Canada and quite proud of our record of safety and innovation. We appear to need some focus on customer service to satisfy our customers!

Silver Donald Cameron said...

Air Canada announced it would no longer carry pets, but has been forced to reverse that decision, which doesn't count as customer service. However, I didn't hear about the reversal till after the column was written.

I don't know what to say about unaccompanied minors. My son had the experience I reported, but it's possible that he simply dealt with an uninformed employee.

Since this was published, however, I've had to fly Air Canada again, and have again confronted a culture which treats passengers with disdain. I don't know what AC is going to do about that, but I'm still voting with my feet whenever possible.