Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Air Canada: Customer health and safety are so 2006

You have to be careful with your messaging when you reverse a previous management decision – especially when you justified that decision with concerns for your customers’ health and safety.

Today, Air Canada announced that, beginning next month, it would allow small dogs and cats in the passenger cabins of its flights. According to Air Canada’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Ben Smith, in the news release issued this morning, "This is the latest of our customer-friendly initiatives that underscores our renewed commitment to listening to our customers and offering a competitive product that meets their needs."

That is very nice. A customer-focused company listens to its customers’ feedback, and responds by introducing a new service. Sounds like good PR.

But here’s the thing. The CBC reports that “In September 2006, Air Canada became the country's first airline to bar pets — with the exception of guide dogs — from its cabins on domestic flights. The airline cited the health and safety of its passengers for the decision.”

So here’s the dilemma: how will Air Canada respond when asked why it is no longer concerned about the risks of having animals in the passenger cabin to the health and safety of its customers?

It’s not news that Air Canada is suffering financially; the government is now reportedly considering a bailout. So for Air Canada to introduce this service, which in 2009 is “customer-friendly” but in 2006 was potentially customer-threatening, may just as likely be seen as an opportunity to raise some much-needed cash.

They’ll have to be careful, though, about how they manage their messaging on how they moved from point A to point B. In its outline of this new option on, the company undertakes to make “every reasonable effort” to move other customers with pet allergies away from four-legged travellers in the cabin. (It’s not clear what they will do for you if someone else’s pet urinates or defecates in its carrier under your seat at the beginning of a cross-country flight, mind you.)

If the move to ban animals in the passenger compartment in 2006 was about health and safety, then not addressing that issue in today’s communications is – to me – a big hole. I haven’t read any media reports yet challenging them on what they’ve done to their airplanes in the last three years to reduce or eliminate the health risks that had caused them to bar animals in the first place – but I expect to.

It’ll be interesting to see how they respond; anything short of actual improvements to the in-cabin environment (i.e. making physical changes to address the health risks that caused the 2006 ban) could expose the company to further criticism about its customer focus – and perhaps its honesty.

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