Nearing the end of weekend trip to Montreal with some old friends, the three guys left were having a lazy Sunday at a pool (billiards) bar a few hours ahead of our 7:45pm flight. Just before 2pm we get simultaneous emails from Porter Airlines with this message:

IMPORTANT – Flight Change Notification 

Porter Airlines flight #426 on October 23, 2011, has been cancelled. You have been moved to flight #408, departing on October 24, 2011 at 8:25 am. 

Please review and click the ‘Confirm’ button to acknowledge this change. You must confirm before October 24, 2011 at 6:55 am to secure your seat(s) on the new flight.

We read the message, looking at each other with disbelief. So far, our understanding is (1) we’re being moved to a flight the following day and being told by email (2) Porter is not making any efforts to fly us on a different airline on the same day (3) Porter is not offering to find nor pay for a hotel and (4) Porter isn’t offering any compensation for the inconvenience.

We called Porter customer service and two of us took turns speaking to an agent, trying to clarify the rather unbelievable situation.

  • They said that they couldn’t make any same day changes over the phone because the flights were officially full  — you could only do that at the airport.  But we would be taking a chance at a wasted trip to Dorval.
  • They weren’t authorised to book us on another airline.
  • They weren’t authorised to pay for another hotel night, even though effectively they would be forcing to stay in town.
  • The only compensation was a $100 voucher (a coupon!) to fly Porter in the future. Since Canadian air taxes are extremely high, there would be no way of ever finding even a one-way ticket that cheap.

We’d all lost complete faith in the Porter brand, one which is normally associated with a great lounge in Toronto, food and drink for everybody, very attractive smiling staff (compared to Air Canada’s long-serving-but-not-so-deserving unionized crew), beautiful brand identity (Raccoons!), and lovely modern propeller planes taking off from a romantic city airport in downtown Toronto.

Instead we’d felt like this was an airline that didn’t mind leaving people in the lurch. My friends decided to stay in Montreal an extra night, and I proceeded to Dorval airport to try my luck with the same day change.

As soon as I got to the airport, I smiled at the customer service agent. Of course I did, she worked at Porter so obviously she was beautiful! I said “I would love it if you could fix what was a very bad Porter experience.” She took control of the situation, apologised with all the right noises, booked me on one of the “full” flights, and asked me whether she could get my friends (still at the pool bar) on the same flight.

I couldn’t believe the difference between the email and call centre experience (extremely impersonal and uninformed) and the airport and airplane experience (phenomenal).

Luckily I was sitting next to a travel agency executive on the flight, who explained that this wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a story: Porter has an tightly honed, consistent customer experience when things are going to plan. It’s only when things go wrong that everything goes a bit haywire. Porter is a young airline so they haven’t honed their contingency guidebook, nor trained / empowered all their staff to deal with a multitude of SNAFU situations.

Air Canada, although their staff aren’t the youngest nor the most enthusiastic bunch, they’re seasoned and they’ve seen it all; and as far as I can tell, they are much better equipped at all touchpoints to deal with situations that go wrong.

Today’s lesson – when designing a “new” brand experience, make sure a backup system exists to document all the bad stuff that happens, so a guidebook can be written to help and empower even the enthusiastic newbies in the call centre out when things go wrong.