Flying Air Canada

Far be it from me to make somebody else’s New Year’s resolutions for them. Well, OK, I do have a few for Mr. Robert Milton and his gang at our National Airline. Get with the technology, guys. Other airlines are leaving you in the dust in terms of making flying more bearable with a little bit of techno-wizardry.

Let’s start with the airport lounges. Yes, I know these are seen by some as a luxury for the booze-swilling pampered few. But in reality, many of us see them as a necessity, a place to send that last minute fax or confirm something by e-mail before hopping onto a flight of long and sometimes uncertain duration.

At several bucks a minute the in-flight phones just aren’t an option, so of course we try to do our last-minute communication from the ground. Toronto has a decent supply of computers in its lounge, but Edmonton and Calgary have two machines each. All it takes is one avid stock trader and one gaming teenager and the available PC count goes to zero. Computers are cheap, Mr. Milton, go buy some and hook them up.

And then, don’t mess them up. I have encountered technical glitches that I didn’t even know existed on computers. One Air Canada computer was running, I kid you not, NetNanny! Give me a break, most people in the business lounge are mature enough to surf the ‘net without being filtered. I discovered this little quirk when a lounge computer logged me off while reading a piece of e-mail that contained the S-word. Heck, I get mail like that almost every day!

When I raised the issue with an Air Canada technical guy who happened to be fixing a machine, he defended the policy saying that “You wouldn’t believe the sites some people click on here.” Fine, then throw them out of the lounge or warn them, but don’t inconvenience the rest of us. Actually, as far as I can tell Air Canada has seen the folly of its ways here and is not putting filtering software on its computers any more.

But things do get worse. In a feeble attempt to keep us from – what, hacking their system? – they have crippled Windows so that you can’t run telnet or ftp or anything but their own peculiar choice of software. This is a major pain for people who like to read their e-mail on the run, off a Unix box, without setting up various preferences in Netscape or Internet Explorer. Even stranger is the fact that (and I have tested this on numerous Air Canada machines) you cannot attach a file to a Web-based e-mail message (Hotmail, Excite, Yahoo). This is the height of stupidity for me because that’s exactly what I usually need to do – send a file to somebody on a just-in-time basis.

By the way, I have tried three times now to report these stupidities using the button that says “Send us Comments About These Computers.” The button works fine, but nobody has ever answered my e-mail, despite being given ample opportunity.

What all this says to me is that Air Canada doesn’t trust its (best) customers to use technology responsibly. But should we trust them? Try to buy a “Websaver ticket” on-line without a credit card. Their site just isn’t designed for that. So I learned when I wanted to pay for one with a credit left over from a previous flight. I did finally figure out how to do it, but it took over an hour on the phone and involved a call to a bizarre secret number that I weaseled out of them.

Then there’s their rather lame on-line booking site ( which is prone to printing out this lovely message, and I quote:

“What Happened?

The Online Reservation System was unable to book all of your selected flights. Please select Update Flight Availability for an up-to-date listing of available flights. You may return to the previous page and your current information by selecting your browser’s ‘Back’ button. If you receive this message again, you may wish to contact our Technical Support Desk at: 1-888-712-7786 and in Montreal: 514-381-8311.”

Well, I tried that and received a full minute of recorded messages in French before the English message came on to tell me that it was too late to be calling them so maybe I could leave my number and hope for a callback. Have they never heard of 24/7 service? Their planes run all the time, why not their support lines?

In sharp contrast to Air Canada’s backwardness with technology, Northwest Airlines has a feature on its site ( that allows you to browse their site from your WAP phone, PalmPilot or other wireless device. United Airlines ( will send you a wireless message showing the gate for your flight and when it’s actually going to take off. And you can check in and print your Northwest boarding pass right on your own computer. Put that in your “180 day commitment” pipe, Mr. Milton.

Air Canada certainly is making hopeful noises, like promising in-flight Internet access someday soon. Power for laptop computers on all their planes, not just the ones inherited from Canadian, would be a nice start. Self-service check in kiosks are also nice, but so far they’re only available at Calgary, Dorval, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

Thinking farther ahead, I’ve already seen prototype airplane seats that have a built in LCD colour screen. You insert a smart card with your “digital identity” (Internet provider, login information, even your favourite screensaver and wallpaper) and the seat morphs into a good facsimile of your home or office computer. It should be a small leap to bring video-on-demand to this screen so you not only get your favourite movie, you can pause it when you want to go to the bathroom.

Perhaps most exciting of all are 3D videoconferencing technologies that might let you hold meetings while in flight. Of course, this could lead to the best frequent flyer trick of all – just staying home.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.