Air Canada and the Non-Lesson from United Airlines

This story caught my eye today. It’s about a little 10-year old boy who’s dying from muscular dystrophy.

As part of his dying wishes, Tanner traveled to New York to take a tour through Central Park. He flew with Air Canada. In Canada, the name Air Canada is synonymous with “Who Cares Canada” instead. Simply put, they’re pretty much the crappest airline around.

Yesterday, however, they outdid themselves. They broke Tanner’s $15,000 wheelchair.

This is an 10-year old boy who can’t get around without his wheelchair. His needs mean that the chair is almost like an extra body part for him.

As an example, think of yourself trying to breathe on only one lung – that’s how important Tanner’s chair is.

So, bit of a problem would be an understatement.

No problem, you’d think. Air Canada broke it, they’ll replace it, right? Wrong.

They told Tanner’s family that they can’t do anything until this coming Monday – five days later. Five days for Tanner to be bed-ridden because Air Canada screwed up. Bad move, Air Canada – we live in the age of social media and instant backlash.

You might recall the outcry when U.S. air carrier United Airlines broke a passenger’s guitar, and the protracted period he went through to get a replacement. Eventually he made a YouTube video that saw United Airline take a negative PR hit they were never prepared for.

You would have thought airlines would have learned from that escapade, especially when you have some great uses of social media from the industry by the likes of JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.

But then again, this is Air Canada we’re talking about.

Despite an outcry on Twitter; despite the news story that leads this post; despite the family pleading their case about how crucial it is for Tanner to have a wheelchair, so far there’s been nothing from the company apart from a “loaner” that Tanner can’t use.

Instead, it’s taken a company in New York called Mobility Solutions to come to Tanner’s rescue. All through Twitter. All through helping a little boy out. All through goodwill; not through responsibility of breaking an item and replacing it.

Nice job, Air Canada.

Now I know times are tough, since you announced your second quarter results and showed a loss of $203 million. But then again, you made an operating income of $75 million, compared to a loss of $113 million last year. So you have some spare change.

But not enough to replace a dying kid’s $15,000 wheelchair that you broke?

Maybe there’s a reason. Maybe there’s red tape you have to sign off. Maybe you have to investigate what happened. Fair enough – that’s business.

But there’s business and there’s good business. You screwed up. You replace. Then you find out what happened.

It’s not so hard, is it?

And while you’re thinking about that, you might want to look at sorting out your Twitter profile, or updating your Facebook page. That’s where the questions are happening. If you had these up-to-date, some things you could have done:

  • Addressed the concerns of Twitter users that are calling you out.
  • Used your Facebook wall to keep folks updated on what’s happening.
  • Used the #TutusForTanner hashtag on Twitter to offer apologies and advise what went wrong/how it’s being fixed.
  • Connected with the news outlets social feeds and updated via there as well.

The great thing about social media is that any mistakes made on it can be rectified on it as well. You have that chance.

Or is it still “Who Cares Canada”?

Update: Looks like Air Canada has stepped up to the plate and is helping to resolve. Good on them – just a pity it probably had a tad to do with the negative publicity as opposed to just getting it sorted as a given.

Update 2: I’m hearing Air Canada is going to fly Tanner to Disneyland (another of his dying wishes) as a way of showing their regret at the incident . Good job, AC – great to see you becoming involved.

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  1. Rob Mangiafico August 5, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Amazing that the airline did not try to get out in front of this before it blew up in their face.

    There is always a way to get things done by any company if the situation warrants it. In this case, it 100% was warranted to remedy the problem within hours and deal with the red tape after the fact…

    #fail to the highest degree.

    • Danny August 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      Agreed, Rob.

      I noted a spokesman has replied on Amber’s news story, but the fact remains – you messed up, sort it and sort it properly. And as Mobility Solutions show, it’s not as if a proper fix isn’t available…

  2. Erika Napoletano August 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Lesson to companies: in the age of the interwebz, don’t let the public deal with something YOU should have dealt with first. Stop by Tanner’s website and Chip In. We should all be so fortunate to have a network like they’ve built should we ever need it.

  3. Kathleen Jaffe August 5, 2010 at 11:12 am

    That’s truly shameful. I understand policies and procedures (hell, that’s my area of expertise), but there are circumstances that call for doing away with the checklists and just making it right.

    Air Canada should be falling all over themselves to fix this: not simply because it makes them look bad, but because it’s the right thing to do.

  4. Kat Jaibur August 5, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Sometimes a company like Air Canada (or BP) needs a huge PR crisis to wake them up and shake them up enough to change. If Air Canada is smart, this is it. If they don’t get the lesson, there will be another one. (And then their bottom line will really feel it.)

    One small question: Since Mobility Solutions was generous enough to rise to the occasion and provide a $15k chair so quickly, why not mention them outright vs. a link that many may not click? They deserve a lot of credit for saving the day for Tanner.

    Thanks for helping to raise awareness, as always, Danny.

    • Danny August 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

      Having worked with Air Canada in a roundabout way through a client in a previous life, Kat, they were very much prehistoric at social. And it’s clear they still are. But at the very least, they should have learned from United.

      And great catch on the name – consider it changed to highlight the great company that stepped in.

  5. Steffani Cameron August 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Yeah. This was just ridiculous.

    Air Canada needs to wake the hell up. You also could’ve pointed out that @aircanada_com, their Twitter account, hasn’t been updated since May 20th.

    Like I tweeted — if you’re gonna do social media, be ACTIVE or don’t even show up.

    What idiots. God, I loathe that company.

  6. Kaylee Stanson August 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    This article is EXTREMELY biased. If I knew all the (true) facts maybe I’d agree, maybe I’d disagree.

    for example
    “No problem, you’d think. Air Canada broke it, they’ll replace it, right? Wrong.

    They told Tanner’s family that they can’t do anything until this coming Monday – five days later.”

    So first off you’re simply saying they WON’T replace it. Then you go on to say, well actually they’re just taking 5 days to replace it, but yes, they are going to .

    Do you know the circumstances behind the 5 day wait? I would’ve liked to read the reasoning behind that. For all we know the wheelchair is so special (like you seemed to imply) that it could actually take 5 days for an *airline* to acquire.

    • Danny August 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

      Hi Kaylee,

      I’m sharing the information I know. As you say yourself, you don’t know the complete story so you can neither agree or disagree.

      However, saying they can’t do anything until Monday is not the same as they will replace.

      As for the chair being special, yes it is. That’s why it costs $15,000. And that’s why it’s probably not a straightforward replacement.

      But Mobility Solutions in New York stepped in and showed it could be done. So why not Air Canada with all the millions they have, and who actually broke the chair in the first place?

  7. Sue Anne Reed August 5, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    This is definitely one of those cases where you make it right first and then go back and sort out what happened. It’s surprising to me that companies haven’t learned that yet with the different examples of things blowing up in social media. We’re not on a 7 day news cycle anymore. It’s more like a 7 minute news cycle before things like this spread.

    Good job to Mobility Solutions for being good citizens and stepping up to help Tanner.

  8. Ike August 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    The boys from South Park almost had it right.

    Blame (Air) Canada.

  9. Matt August 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    While it certainly is Air Canada’s responsibility to replace the chair if in fact they were responsible for the damaged property, you have certainly presented your argument in a disgustingly biased way. Reading this made me side against you for the simple reason I hate it when people only provide their version of the story with nothing to corroborate it. You also forgot to mention from the article that when the chair arrived it was immediately sent for repair (which could take a long time) and that Air Canada did provide a manual chair for the time being. Sure it is not an ideal solution, but making it out like they simply through the boy on the ground is really poor article writing and pathetic present the facts and make your arguments based on them.

    • Ike August 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm

      So, what you’re saying is that Air Canada’s mistake isn’t screwing up his chair — but in being painfully slow to realize the giant swell of negative buzz, and ignoring the need to react to it?

    • Sue Anne Reed August 5, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Matt – Putting someone with a disease like DMA in a manual wheelchair is akin to throwing him on the ground. There are reasons why some wheelchairs cost $200 and some cost $15k.

    • Danny August 5, 2010 at 1:45 pm

      Hi Matt,

      If you click through the links and the searches/results that I clearly share, then it offers the “full story” as is currently known.

      I also advise that Air Canada offered a replacement/solution with this part of the post:

      “…apart from a “loaner” that Tanner can’t use.”

      Not really sure where I say they threw Tanner on the ground either? I mentioned he’s bed-ridden, as was shared by his family who’re with him in New York.

      But you’re right, this is my personal blog so I’m offering my personal take on a current discussion, and one that offers other views and discussions into the bargain.

      If I was really biased, I wouldn’t have an open comments policy that allows you to call me “disgusting” and “pathetic”. Now that would really be biased, no? 😉

    • Troy August 5, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      Matt- Before commenting on a situation of this magnitude I would highly recommend doing a tad more research. Sue Anne hit the nail on the head regarding the type of chair needed for someone with this disease, it does him no good. Your post also shows how compassionate you are. We’re talking about a dying boy! not someone who has as you put it “a long time” to wait for repairs. IMO

      • Matt August 5, 2010 at 2:06 pm

        I am not saying Air Canada had it right at all. I believe it would have been very possible and even easy for them to find a suitable temporary chair. In the quoted article it also states that they also provided an electric wheelchair. My comment was directed towards the biased presentation of this story. I didn’t say the boy had a “long time” but the repair of the wheelchair could take a while, again not defending Air Canada not stepping in right away and buying a new one. But this was written extremely biased and even though it is an opinion piece I personally find extreme biased turn me off of articles, whether or not I agree with the authors opinion.

    • Jac Star August 5, 2010 at 3:54 pm

      no no, Matt’s right. Air Canada didn’t have to do anything at all and yet they chose to do at least a little something.

      Think of it this way, if a plane is crashing and the pilot decides to save himself by jumping early and leaving the plane to crash and kill all the passengers, well at least he saved himself right? better to at least do a little something than nothing at all.

      and if Air Canada was the airline of said plane, should they take the heat for said pilot?

      ahem… yes.

  10. Ryan August 5, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    A wait period I believe should not be an issue and is off the table. Even if the only available chair was across the world guess what? YOU OWN AN AIRLINE!!! Fly one in! That poor boy should be sitting in one right now!

  11. Heather M August 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I really feel for this family. How terrible. However, we don’t seem to have all the facts. Let’s not lash out so fast. AC didn’t say they WOULDN’T replace it or repair it. It seems that they should have moved faster and perhaps been more clear about what they were planning to do to make this right, but they never said they were going to leave this amazing kid without a wheelchair.

    There are a LOT of special circumstances in business. A lot of people flying with wheelchairs and stage-4 cancer and so much more. This story is getting a lot of press. To say that they should replace and then investigate isn’t exactly fair. They can’t do every time someone has a heartbreaking story (which this absolutely is) because there are a lot of those out there. I bet there’s one in your family. Five days seems fair for such a customized item IF they are in contact with the family about what they intend to do.

    I have to say… I dislike Air Canada for a variety of service-related issues. I don’t fly with them anymore… period. However, I think there is a side we are not hearing and people have jumped on this too quickly. The great part about it is that Tanner’s story is getting attention and he is getting the replacement he needs.

    • Danny August 5, 2010 at 2:46 pm

      Hi Heather,

      I agree, and the post makes it clear that they will do something, just not until five days later (and as my update points out, seems they’re doing it quicker).

      The reason the story is probably getting a lot of press is obviously helped by the fact there was just a tweetathon for the kid, while his aunt is pretty well-known in social circles.

      Yet at the same time, if Mobility Solutions can come up with something on the same day, it makes Air Canada’s position a little less viable as far as timescale goes.

      Ironic or not, Ryan’s comment that they could fly one in isn’t too far from the truth.

      Especially since Air Canada admitted they screwed up. Once you do that, you resolve and then work out why it happened and how to prevent in future.

      • Heather M August 5, 2010 at 3:02 pm

        Hi Danny,

        I appreciate your response and I agree that something could potentially have been accomplished sooner than in 5 days. However, Mobility Solutions is in a much better position to offer up a solution – that’s their business! And what they did was wonderful. Air Canada, however, is in the airline business (however poor at that they may be). 😉 There is likely no mobility specialist there, and every damage issue of this magnitude likely requires a lot of learning and legwork.

        No question Air Canada should have flown that new chair in for him same-day. No question.

        • Danny August 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm

          There’s no mobility specialist, but there should definitely be a crisis comms specialist, and they should be able to source a better solution than “we’ll help, but it’s going to take five days.”

          I think that’s probably where Air Canada did even more damage, and probably another reason they’re taking as much heat as they are from a variety of quarters.

          Though like you say, they’ve not exactly got a stellar history in customer greatness… 😉

  12. Antonia August 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    It’s mind-boggling to me that in the age of social media companies still find it easy to ignore it. I mean SERIOUSLY?! Do all those PR people have their heads in the sand? Or do they just chose to ignore it. I can’t really think of another word than mind-boggling cos my mind is boggled.

    Oh and the other thing is that really it’s not a guitar that they broke. It’s a wheelchair that little boy clearly depends on. Bad business all around. Can’t agree more with your post Danny.

    My mind is still boggled.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      Funnily enough, Antonia, I was chatting with a PR student from the UK today, and why it’s so important for PR pro’s (amongst other industries) to understand social.

      Even if you’re not active in it, you can bet people that know you or your brand are. You need to know how to respond, where, and how quickly. Otherwise you just get crapshoots like this, sadly.

  13. JayTurn August 5, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    This is a sad situation and it sucks that such a large company can’t provide a more humane response. Understandable if the business needs to investigate and maybe they couldn’t avoid the 5 day wait for Tanner to receive his own replacement. BUT, with the resources of Air Canada, they could easily have found Tanner a loaner that adequately suited his condition.

    Air Canada have a phone… don’t they? I don’t know how long they spent resolving this situation but a few phone calls would have found the right type of wheelchair. I am not sure if these chairs can be loaned out but something could have been organized.

    This is the reason why big companies are getting slammed in social media circles. The distance between the people at the bottom of the company and the people who can make executive decisions is too great. I imagine the Air Canada staff speaking with Tanner and his family were very sympathetic and tried to resolve the situation. The problem is that the details have to be passed on to executives in the business that don’t directly deal with Tanner and his family.

    I’m not saying big corporate executives don’t care but I am saying there can be a lowered sense of urgency when reading things on paper as opposed to being in a situation.

    Consider this re-tweeted because social media is the voice of the people that large corporations and government have frequently ignored for so long.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 12:49 pm

      That’s a great point, Jay. Perhaps the folks on the ground were immense in what they were trying to do, but their hands were tied by red tape.

      I worked with a company once that had a negative comment left on one of their client’s sites. They asked what they should do (it was a delivery problem and needed investigation).

      I advised they should respond immediately, say they’re sorry to hear about the problem, that they don’t have all the facts but will look into it and get back ASAP.

      Their response? It came 4 days later, after getting approval from PR, legal and other decision-makers. That’s when I knew they really weren’t listening to anything I said.

      4 days to say, “Sorry, we’ll look into it and keep you informed as we go?”


  14. Ann Marie van den Hurk August 5, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    I guess some businesses need to go back to nursery school where we were all taught to say please/thank you, share, play nice, and if you break it then you fix it…

  15. Kapil Apshankar August 6, 2010 at 3:29 am

    This story is a classic case study on how to successfully damage reputation, Danny.

    Here’s a one-step process to get there fast: Get in a state of denial, forget about Twitter, Facebook and any other channels, and pretend it’s business as usual.

    It sounds like Air Canada followed this process perfectly well – till someone actually had the commonsense (or guts) to challenge it.

    Social media is a double-edged sword – it’s as much as a platform for making up – and making good of a mistake, as it is to damage reputation and gather bad publicity. That’s where the Jetblues and SWAs of the world come out shining through the fog.

    Too bad Air Canada learned their lesson the hard way – and no matter what they do now – the damage has already been done.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 12:51 pm

      Exactly, Kapil. Look at Dell – they were getting slaughtered on social (and obviously they still have their detractors) but they listened, got involved and turned it around.

      Now look at them – $6 million of sales via their Twitter channel? Not too shabby for a “hated company”…

      • Ike August 6, 2010 at 1:55 pm

        I agree with most of that, but I am a little weary of hearing Dell’s Twitter sales stats.

        On the whole, it’s not a very big bump for them. When you quote that number to a large enterprise, they compare the figure to the 10-K statements and wonder why we’re all agog over a fraction of a percent in revenue.

        Especially for merchandise that includes a heaping helping of refurbs and discontinued items that could have been sold through other means, and still moved the bottom line by a hair’s-breadth.

        • Danny August 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm

          Agreed, Ike, and I’m loathe to use Dell (or any of the other overused ones) when mentioning figures. I mentioned as much when I was quoted in Marketing Magazine, that the social media successes also had a large ad budget behind them too. 😉

          Just thought in this case they were apt.

  16. Kim Kolb August 6, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Danny, Great Post. Businesses need to take heed and that this is how people are communicating these days. Long gone are the days of writing to a company to complain and it taking forever to get a response. It is “In an Instant” that people start talking. Good or Bad customer service can spread like wildfire and I would want to know what is being said. Companies need to get connected! A bad comment is not bad if it is addressed right away. Not addressing it right away could mean that they don’t care, like AC did for so long. I am glad they figured it out and hopefully will not take as long the next time something happens and hopefully Tanner will not have any issues getting to Disneyland.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      So true, Kim.

      If you want an example of social as a way for customer service to shine, look no further than Zappos.

      Human CEO who cares, a culture across the team to deliver only the best user experience, and resolving issues in the public and taking the blame for screw-ups.

      We’re smart folks – we all know no-one is perfect, but if we can just aim to be perfect, that’s all that folks ask for.

  17. Darrell Chase August 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Incredibily biased post that completely ignores the facts. What Air Canada is really guilty of is poor communications with Tanner’s mother – they gave her a 1-800 number instead of a number of someone who was “in the know” about the case and could have provided the info that the chair was already being repaired. They neglected to confirm with Tanner’s mother that the chair they sent to the hotel had actually been delivered to her room by the hotel.
    If you read the rest of the coverage you would know the following:
    they did provide not one but two replacement chairs – neither of which ended up being suitable but let’s remember that this lad uses a custom-built chair. As for AC flying a chair in – they would have to locate one first and considering his own chair was back yesterday afternoon it probably wouldn’t have been much faster.
    They did send his chair to an all night repair shop – BEFORE the twitter furor started so the whole “power of social media” thing is bogus.
    They also tweeted Tanner’s aunt on Wednesday night asking her to DM them with details. You can see that by going to their Top Tier page. According to their spokesperson they also tried calling and email.
    By the way – if you had read anything beyond the very first story you would know that the very basics of your story are wrong – Tanner is 10 not 8. If you can’t even get that right it certainly makes the rest of your story suspect.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 1:01 pm

      Hi Darell,

      Cheers for the information, much appreciated. As I mentioned in the comments, I can only share the information I have at any time, and this all came from various media reports as well as Tanner’s family.

      My bad on the age thing – I read he was 8. I’ll correct.

      With regards bias, I’m thinking real bias wouldn’t update Air Canada’s resolutions. While the view is my personal one (and one that I advised was such), I’m always happy to share any corrections or updates. Just a thought.

  18. Jeremie Brecheisen August 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Hi Danny,

    I lived in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a couple of years and thought AC was a funny little out-dated airline, so it’s not surprising things got out of hand on Twitter without AC jumping in on the conversation.

    Also, Jet Blue had to learn the hard way as well. I am just glad they learned. After they held their passengers captive on the ground for 6+ hours debacle, they came out with the very first passenger bill of rights the airline industry has seen in its history.

    I have really enjoyed the community’s discussions on this post, especially your level-headed responses to criticisms of bias. It is quite a wonderful experience to feel defensive and then see a situation handled with maturity, admitting mistakes when you are wrong, making corrections accordingly, and responding assertively to items which you disagree with. You amaze me and I love it when you get negative feedback because it helps me remember how I should respond to such feedback.

    Thanks for another great lesson!

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks Jeremie.

      One of the things I’ve always aimed for on here is an open comment policy, and room for discussion. Without that, it’s just a broadcasting platform for me, and who wants that?

      Besides, even “negativity” breeds new points of view and awareness, and that can never be a bad thing.

  19. Rob Metras August 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Sad thing is Danny despite what happened AC has not taken advantage of situation by letting us know they are listening now to what comes out on Social Media. I posted today on this as seen below bit I would have thought after “United Breaks Guitars: they might have become better listeners.
    They do deserve a plus for the free trip to Disney which seems like a fir thing but not for not engaging. Ther Facebook page appears like an ad.

    • Danny August 6, 2010 at 9:33 pm

      Good points, Rob.

      Perhaps had the company been more open, none of the conjecture that we’ve seen (including this post) would have ever made it past the starting blocks.

      Cheers, fella.

  20. doug hay August 7, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Any company that thinks they can ignore bad customer service in this wired aged is in for some very bad publicity. Top of the list for social media policies is fix anything broken in customer service.

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