WestJet skids into confusion

At least one Okanagan resident has a different account of the WestJet flight 150 to Edmonton that slid off the apron while taxiing to the runway at Kelowna International Airport Monday morning.

Monday, Castanet ran a story of one passenger’s firsthand account of his experience on the plane as he attempted to make his way to Toronto. Another passenger on that flight, Christine Harwood, says it was a frustrating day from start to finish.

“They had people lining the walkway leading back to the airport and immediately I felt like they were watching us to make sure we weren’t going to take pictures or stuff like that,” explains Harwood.

“I could be completely wrong, but it didn’t have that helpful, warm and friendly kind of vibe.”

She says passengers were then instructed by an airline employee to go to the baggage area and either wait for their bags or attempt to make other travel arrangements.

“I guess my expectations from having been on that plane for that long, were that they would have organized something – some information for us,” says Harwood.

“We were on the plane for one hour after the incident happened and when we got there, there was an empty baggage carousel area that had been sectioned off and someone telling us to leave our (carry-on) bags.”

Harwood describes the lady as a helpful person who was overwhelmed – doing the best she could, but without any definitive information.

At this time the group was given conflicting information. As the passengers were deplaning, Harwood says the pilot told them they wouldn’t be able to get their baggage until the plane had been moved. Once inside the terminal, they were told that bags were on their way. She also experienced frustration when no one was around to deal with the group or help them book alternate flights.

“We were thrown into a mix with about one thousand people that had come to the airport after us, who already knew that their flights were canceled,” says Harwood.

By that time kiosk lines were so backed up inside the airport that passengers were told to go home and call WestJet in order to rebook flights – but the call centre was overloaded too and Christine was unable to speak with anyone and was instead given an automated call back time of 1:15 p.m.

Harwood decided to make the 1.5-hour journey back to her home near Summerland in order to plan out her next move and wait for the call back that didn’t come until 5:30 p.m. that evening.

That’s when she was told that WestJet had already rebooked her onto an 8:30 p.m. flight leaving the next day.

“They really weren’t sympathetic at all. Their attitude was:  this is the next available flight we have and the guy told me ‘this is a weather related incident beyond our control and we’re not responsible for anything,’” says Harwood.

“So I cancelled my flight and asked them to issue a me a credit so I can rebook once I’ve had the chance to make other arrangements.”

Harwood says she typically flies WestJet and had a similar experience while waiting for an early morning flight last month – passengers spent two hours on the plane while it was being de-iced.

“The flight crew were excellent (in that situation),” says Harwood.

“The captain kept informing us about what was going on and apologizing to us for the delay and followed through with promises to make up time wherever possible. And the whole scenario yesterday was very different.“

For their part, WestJet says they have a policy in place to deal with delays, cancellations and weather related issues like Monday morning at YLW, but the logistics of each scenario is unique, meaning that information can be scarce.

“Unfortunately in the aftermath of something that has just occurred - the reality is that information may not yet be available,” says Robert Palmer, manager of public relations for WestJet.

“While they’re looking for decisions to be made, discussions on those very issues may be happening behind the scenes. The reality is you can’t provide it until it becomes available and until the decision is made.”

He goes on to say that WestJet would not immediately know whether or not the original plane would still be able to fly and that means alternate plans have to be made not only for those passengers on the original flight, but also for all connecting flights expected to be flown that day by that same aircraft.

“There are a myriad of departments that would be involved in something like this and it's just not as simple as people may appreciate but certainly the bottom line is that people deserve information – they want it, they deserve it and we do our best to get it to them as quickly as possible. But we do ask that they appreciate that sometimes discussions have to be held before decisions are made with respect to what’s going to happen next,” explains Palmer.

He also noted that the first week of January is the tail end of the busiest time of year in the airline industry and WestJet had flown the most people in the company’s history with five consecutive months of record load factors and are also experiencing the highest call volume in their history too.

“This was, in a sense, the perfect storm,” says Palmer with no pun intended.

“You had horrific weather, you had a plane stuck in the snow, you had the Christmas travel season where people were on their way home – some of whom were adjusting their flights –and you had a seat sale. So you had four factors that combined to make for an extremely busy call centre and we very much regret that people are experiencing lengthy waits but the fact of the matter is we’ve got these factors that are coming together to make an extremely challenging situation.”

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