Air Canada goes soft, woos travellers with pillows, pets

Air Canada is undoing rules designed to improve its efficiency but that ended up alienating travellers, and will now strive to be kinder to people and gentler on pets.

Chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu is developing the new strategy aimed at softening Air Canada’s reputation for taking a hard stance in dealing with consumers. He plans to ease restrictions on pets and sports equipment, pare some extra fees and bring back pillows and blankets.

Mr. Rovinescu, who replaced Montie Brewer as CEO on April 1, wants to simplify a system of ticket pricing that left travellers complaining about being nickeled-and-dimed in recent years.

“Calin has made it known to managers throughout the organization that he wants to reverse customer-unfriendly policies that have been instituted over the last few years,” a senior Air Canada official said. “It’s a repudiation of policies under Montie Brewer.”

Montreal-based Air Canada is reviewing its pet policy. Within weeks, it may allow dogs, cats, rabbits and birds back in the cabin, as long as the weight of the container and pet is less than 10 kilograms and fits under the seat in front of the pet owner.

Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd. still welcomes pets, touting itself as an animal-friendly airline ever since Air Canada banned pets from the cabin in 2006.

The proposed changes are part of an internal review Air Canada is undergoing as it faces a cash crunch, declining passenger loads during the recession and fierce competition from WestJet. Industry analysts have speculated that Air Canada could be headed for another court-supervised restructuring.

At its annual meeting today in Montreal, Air Canada will play the patriotic card, raising the profile of its red logo with the maple leaf in the centre. The logo was relegated to a supporting role when the carrier emerged from bankruptcy protection in the fall of 2004 and pop star Celine Dion helped usher in blue as the dominant colour in marketing campaigns.

“We are a classic brand with stature,” Air Canada chief commercial officer Ben Smith said in a recent message to employees.

Air Canada could also relax rules on sports equipment, possibly allowing skis, snowboards and other items to be checked in without charge, over and above transporting two bags.

A $25 service fee charged to customers who booked through the airline’s call centre has already been scrapped, and an optional travel assistance fee of $25 to $35 one-way, named On My Way, also “appears headed for the dustbin,” a senior official said.

As well, a $2 “comfort kit” consisting of an inflatable plastic pillow and polyester blanket that was introduced in 2005 has fallen out of favour. Regular pillows and better-quality blankets could be restored for certain longer-haul routes within North America.

Mr. Rovinescu also wants to improve relations with travel agents. He met last week at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant with a half dozen executives representing travel agency chains that account for $1-billion of the airline’s revenue, or 9 per cent, and pledged to improve partnerships with agents.

Other changes being contemplated include increasing the number of Aeroplan miles awarded when taking flights. And bags may soon be transferred for Air Canada passengers connecting to foreign airlines.

For instance, Air Canada customers flying from Toronto to London’s Heathrow and then on to Morocco would have their baggage transferred to a Royal Air Maroc flight from London to Morocco.

In the Eastern Triangle of Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa, the airline is poised to reinvigorate its Rapidair brand. Rapidair flight frequencies could be beefed up as Toronto-based Porter Airlines Inc. expands in the region.

AIR CANADA (AC.B) Close: $1.80, up 40¢

BRENT JANG From Friday’s Globe and Mail May 8, 2009 at 6:42 AM EDT