Snowstorms in Greater Toronto!
Subtitle: Feeling lucky?
When there is a snowstorm or other irregular operations (IROPS), Air Canada’s Daily Travel Outlook includes this sentence:
“Air Canada has revised its ticketing policy for customers booked on affected flights to facilitate changes to bookings.”
It then becomes possible to make arbitrary changes to one’s flights without paying money. On the other hand, one is also subject to involuntary changes.
Preamble & plam’s flights
MP was scheduled to fly from YYZ to YUL to YBG (Bagotville/Saguenay) on February 10, starting at 06:30. A 06:30 start is uncivilized. The original plan was to stay at an airport hotel near YYZ, and I had reserved a refundable room, checking in on February 9. I’d also prepaid airport parking for her in the YYZ Reserved Lot.
I was already in Saguenay as of February 8, having taken advantage of declared IROPS at YYZ (“winter operational conditions”) to change my own flight from a 17:30 departure via YOW and YUL (ouch) to first eliminate the YOW stop and then to instead leave at 10am with a single generous 3h22 layover at YUL. In the lounge, I got asked whether I was an ice climber by a guy wearing an Ouray Ice Park fleece (due to my Black Diamond backpack + helmet). “Nope, I profess software engineering.” My own flights went super smoothly; the winter conditions only actually materialized later in the day. I only had an 18 minute de-ice delay at YUL.
MP’s booking was on points via Aeroplan. 06:30 was uncivilized but had availability when we decided to buy the tickets. The booking was relatively good value for 2018, 15000 points +$200 for a roundtrip cost that had gotten to maybe $800. I did calculate cents per mile but I forget what it is now. I think it was in the 3-4 range.
It turns out that IROPS at YYZ existed from February 8 through at least February 11. As I write this, I am still hoping for IROPS on February 12 (my return flight) to get a free change to a 05:30 flight (yeah, uncivilized, but then I get free and fast transportation from the airport.)
Pre-planning to avoid disaster
While I was transitting at YUL, I tried to figure out how to optimize MP’s travel by leveraging IROPS. Also to avoid disaster. MP was to leave work on Friday afternoon to go to the airport. The same Friday which included a GTA snowstorm.
Best case: MP takes the 19:00 flight to YUL and then the 21:30 flight arriving at YBG at 22:40 on Friday night. Spoiler: she got it.
I figured that leaving from YUL on Saturday morning was strictly better than leaving from YYZ in the morning. She’d need an airport hotel either way. But there was no slack for a delayed or cancelled flight with the original Saturday morning routing; she’d instead arrive at YBG in the late afternoon, eliminating most of one of the two days of the trip.
Given IROPS, changing YYZ-YUL to Friday should be easy. There is a huge amount of capacity on that route—I’ve calculated it at many times the existing train capacity. In particular, there are flights at 18:00, 19:00, 20:30 and 21:30. Thinking ahead, the 19:00 (arriving 20:13) would be a legal connection to the 21:30 flight to YBG. Standing by for these flights almost always works. However, the YBG 21:30 had been showing as sold out for the past few days. Air Canada wasn’t selling tickets. So I wasn’t hopeful on that front.
I started by cancelling the YYZ airport hotel booking and speculatively looking at YUL airport hotel bookings. At 48 hours out it is generally impossible to make refundable hotel bookings (but then again, you just have to not make the booking.)
[MP and I discussed changing other peoples’ flights. As an executive assistant, she does this all the time. I only change my own travel arrangements. To my surprise, it turns out that all you need is the booking reference and perhaps the credit card number used to book. That can’t be super secure.]
Who can change?
So, who can change an Aeroplan booking under IROPS? I checked reports on Flyertalk and investigated my options at YUL.
Before check-in opens: Only Aeroplan can make changes to award bookings more than 24h before the flight. Even under IROPS, you can’t use the Air Canada IROPS rebooking tool to make changes to Aeroplan reservations. Note that Aeroplan’s call centre closes at 9pm Eastern time (!).
After check-in: Within 24h of scheduled departure, it is possible to check in online (except when you can’t). Once checked-in, Air Canada takes over the reservation and is willing to make changes when you call in to Air Canada Reservations. Even if you cancel your check-in.
At the airport: You can change flights at ticketing, check-in, at a service desk airside, and at the gate. Check-in might be the best bet for those with status. But you can’t change others’ reservations at the airport.
It seems like Maple Leaf Lounge agents generally don’t do changes to flights (unlike the service desk in United Clubs). But they do standby for YYZ-YUL.
At T-36 I failed to make any changes at the airport because Aeroplan. MP tried to call in (I didn’t think I could, but I guess I’m wrong). Aeroplan somehow didn’t recognize IROPS, despite being on Air Canada’s website. This was frustrating, and consistent across 3 agents, MP reported. I tried to call in, but by that time it was 9, so Aeroplan was closed.
At T-24 (6:30am) I checked MP in and then called in to AC Reservations. (I believe that speaking French results in shorter wait times. I wonder if that belief is true.) In any case, I managed to confirm YYZ-YUL for Friday 21:30 in only 6 minutes on the phone, so that I could proceed to rent a car in Chicoutimi. The 21:30 flight out of YYZ obviously would not connect to the flight departing for YBG at 21:30. The strategy would thus be standby for as early as possible for YYZ-YUL on Friday and, we hoped, change to YUL-YBG on Friday as well. But even flying out of YYZ at 21:30 would get MP closer to the destination.
In action: how to spend almost 0 time at airports
MP left work in a GTA snowstorm at 15:00. Google Maps was reporting live travel times of 1h15 from Kitchener to YYZ, but I think that was inaccurate. I’d gotten in from backcountry skiing at Mt. Edouard at 17:00 and was expecting to hear from MP.
After a bit of a snafu with the location of the Pearson reserved lot (not prominently marked and not gated) which involved an extra trip on the highway in a snowstorm, MP parked the car and got on the LINK train at 18:14. Using the Air Canada app, I directed her to gate D22. There were no lines and she was the last person to get onto that plane, having requested standby at the gate. I got a “I’m on a plane” message at 18:43 for a 19:09 pushback.
The scheduled arrival time was 20:13, which is plenty of time for the 21:30 departure to YBG. And yet MP mentioned a projected 21:00 arival time?! It turns out that under ~winter~operational~conditions~ it can take an hour to deice. Takeoff was at 20:23 and landing at 21:07 with gate arrival at 21:13, which was not looking good, since the flight to YBG was still showing as on-time at 21:30. Meanwhile I got back to Chicoutimi from a referee clinic in Jonquiere by 21:20.
Coming from row 29, MP got off the inbound plane at 9:28, leaving her at gate 50. I texted her to get to gate 20. I still expected that she would either miss the flight or that there wouldn’t be a seat for her. But I’d noticed that 4 people had managed to stand by onto the plane, which was still showing as full. (Tip: Don’t believe “full” from the Air Canada app.) Meanwhile the plane showed a delay to 21:45…
At 21:37, or seven minutes after I’d texted her the gate information, I got another “I’m on the plane” message. (My response: !!!). For the second flight in a row she was the last person on the plane. Her seat neighbour’s boss had apparently chosen to see a Habs game instead of flying to Bagotville that night.
In the end, the YUL-YBG flight was delayed 24 minutes, but that still got MP in 11 hours ahead of schedule, and I was happy to pick her up at YBG at 23:05, where you can just wait in your car near the terminal. Somehow there aren’t airport staff driving you away from the pickup location.
Bonus: MP’s original Saturday morning flight showed up as “cancelled”. She therefore would not have made it until the afternoon.
Double bonus: As I write this (22:27 Sunday evening) I find that Air Canada has declared IROPS (“weather winds recovery”) for Monday. So I fixed my flights to leave YBG at 05:30 and YUL at 08:00 rather than 16:10, at no cost. (Thanks!) MP was booked on the 09:00 from YUL. We left for the airport at 04:10 from Chicoutimi.
Triple bonus: MP also managed to get onto the 09:00 flight to YYZ despite being as low as #10 on the standby list at T-8 minutes from scheduled departure. Then she wasn’t on the standby list because she got a seat. It seems like they called #1-#9 and enough of them weren’t there. This time, she was not the last person to get onto the plane. I think that was the first officer, at T-6 minutes.
Pro tip: you have to cancel your checkin before the rebooking tool can work. Even then, it doesn’t always work.
Now I don’t need to look at flight statuses and standby lists for a whole 3 days! It looks like our YYZ-MAD flight is sold out in Y and PY; it has availability for both lowest and full-fare J. I look forward to seeing what will happen.