Some Air Canada passengers are seeing red after the airline moved them to its new low-cost Rouge carrier, but the airline denies service is suffering.
Many customers who purchased Air Canada flights months in advance say they have found themselves bumped onto Rouge flights and given no choice but to accept the smaller seats, limited in-flight entertainment and lack of complimentary food.
Jim Noon, who booked a regular Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles on points in March, says the company subsequently moved him to a Rouge flight without his knowledge or consent.
"It's frustrating, and it makes you feel deceived," Noon told CBC News.
The flight could prove a tight squeeze for Noon, who is six-foot-three: Rouge seats have less legroom than regular Air Canada flights.
For instance, Rouge seats on the Airbus 319-100 have 73.5 cm of pitch, compared with 79-89 cm on the same aircraft on a regular Air Canada flight.
This spacing, and a reduced number of larger premium seats, allows the airline to put in two more rows, for a total of 12 more seats on the Airbus planes.
"I'm a tall guy," Noon says. "My No. 1 concern is that I can fit into that seat for three hours — or eight hours — and not have to crawl off the plane afterwards."
Access to entertainment and food on Rouge flights also differs from regular Air Canada flights.
On Rouge flights, economy travellers must pay for food and can only access in-flight entertainment if they have their own iPad or are prepared to rent one for the flight.
The experience has made Noon swear off the carrier for good.
"I used to be a loyal Air Canada traveller, and now I am certainly going to look elsewhere."
Social media reaction also critical
Noon is not alone, based on social media comments.
The travel review site Skytrax has comment forums for every airline and the Rouge board is filled with posters complaining about getting bumped from Air Canada flights.
And it's not just those who bumped to Rouge flights who are complaining.
The new brand is facing criticism from passengers who have booked with Rouge and argue that not only is it not cheaper than regular Air Canada flights, but the cramped quarters on board make it an unpleasant experience.
"The 319 plane was cramped with uncomfortable seats, absolutely no leg room and no ventilation," J. Morton writes.
"Average height people found their knees jammed into the seat ahead of them and it was impossible to bend over to place or retrieve items from under the seat. Heaven help you if the person in front of you reclined their seat even the small degree they move."
Another poster coined a new term against the airline, saying, "I got Rouged."
On Air Canada Rouge's Facebook page, complaints are noticeably absent, but elsewhere on social media, customers are complaining the company is deleting critical Facebook posts.
CBC News also observed that dozens of critical posts spotted on Friday had been deleted from the Rouge Facebook page by Monday.
Air Canada defends Rouge
Air Canada denies the Rouge service is suffering from customer fallout. In a statement emailed to CBC, the company wrote that "Rouge flights have been very successful and customers tell us they enjoy the service."
The statement goes on to say that since the launch of Rouge in 2013, "we have received very few such concerns."
Air Canada describes Rouge as "low cost," but is careful to avoid the term "budget airline."
It calls Rouge a "leisure" service.
"The fares are largely the same," says Renee Smith-Valade, vice-president of customer experience at Air Canada Rouge, who notes that the services offered by the two carriers are also comparable.
"Air Canada has always priced itself competitively," she said.
"In the airline industry, the airlines look at what each other is charging for a fare and make sure that they're always competitive."
'A marketer's nightmare'
"Either Rouge is a real price deal at stripped-down services, or it's not," said Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University. "Don't try to have your cake and eat it too. High prices and jammed-in service? No."
Meredith cautions that the company may find itself in trouble if it switches customers from one service to another without offering an alternative.
"That kind of misrepresentation might catch the attention of somebody like the competition bureau," he says.
He also warns against fuelling the increasing disaffection of customers, who may already be looking at other carriers, saying that one truism of marketing is that once you drive customers away, it's extremely difficult to get them back.
"It would be pretty much a marketer's nightmare if somebody talks about being 'Rouged,'" he said.
"The name of your brand is in the lexicon as being a term for being ripped off? Boy! That would be the kiss of death for any brand name I can think of."
Correction : A previous version of this story said Air Canada's Rouge aircraft have three seats on each side of the aisle, compared to two seats in standard Air Canada Airbus 319s. In fact, both types of planes have three seats across in Economy.(May 07, 2014 4:13 PM)