I have a friend who doesn't want me to get a job with Air Canada, because then, for solidarity's sake, he says he'd have to stop complaining about them. I don't work for Air Canada now, so I'm going to take a moment to complain.
This did not seem to be a one-time experience caused by some one-in-a-thousand malfunction: this was the normal everyday experience with checked bags at a major Canadian airport. It wasn't even a Friday or a Monday. What were they thinking when they set it up? What are they thinking when they watch the mayhem that develops?
The check-in area is arranged so that when I come in the door I am between the first class check-in counters and the ticket purchase counters. If I had no checked bags I could walk straight ahead between both and gone to the gate area, because I've already got my boarding pass online. If I were flying first class, I could have checked in right there and continued. But I am flying Tango, Air Canada's lowest fare tier, and I have a bag to check.
Around to my left is a row of about eight check-in kiosks. It's a good thing I've checked in online, because the area where the kiosks are is completely roped off, except for one gap at the front, through which a long queue has formed, wrapping all the way around the kiosks towards the ticket purchase counter. One of the check-in kiosks is in use. The rest are empty.
The online check-in page directed me to go straight to the "Air Canada Web bag drop-off counter." That's listed in bold on the boarding pass, so I search for that sign. I can't see it anywhere. I go up to where the queue passes through the gape in the stanchioned tape and read the sign there. It says something like Bag Check-In. There is an Air Canada employee there so I ask him where the "web bag drop-off" is, and he says this is it. I go to the back of the line. Pretty soon someone comes along and asks to be let through, "I don't have any bags to check! I just need to get to the check-in kiosk!" She clearly doesn't have any bags to check, and we're lining up for the bag drop, so people let her through. Then comes the next guy, "Let me through! I'm late for my flight!" We let him through, too, but less charitably. He should have though of that when he decided what time to leave the house. And then comes another woman.
"Let me through," she says, "I just have to drop off my bags."
"So does everyone else," we say.
"I already checked in," she protests.
"So did everyone else," the crowd choruses wearily.
Variations on this these are of course repeated with every new person. Air Canada couldn't do much better if they wanted to deliberately provoke fights in the queue. There is no one from the airline patrolling the line here. The guy over by the sign doesn't seem to be doing anything service-related. Maybe he's there to make sure the tape barrier doesn't fall down.
The line proceeds into the inexplicably roped off kiosk area and then to the bag tagging stations beyond the check-in kiosks. There are several lanes, so once inside the ropes, people split up into whichever lane they think will give them the best chance. Each line reaches back past the kiosks, so that the people actually trying to use the check-in kiosks have to run the gauntlet. There's no point in having checked in online, because the bag drop is such a huge bottleneck, checking in at the airport at least gives you something to do while waiting to drop your bag.
When you get to the bag tagging station they are nice to you, verify your ticket, and put a routing sticker on the bag. I'm not sure what is self-serve about that. They don't weigh the bag. Next, you have to go all the way to the left to join the queue to actually drop off your bag. This queue is perpendicular to the bag tag lanes, so everyone comes out of the bag tag lane and attempts to jump the queue, until they are told where the end of the line is. As the line inches forward, you pass the special baggage (skis, rifles, musical instruments, strollers) drop, such that people coming out of bag tag with special baggage have to cut through the bag drop queue. They can't easily go all the way around the end of it, because the regular bag drop queue kind of blocks the entrance to the special bag drop area.
Eventually I near the head of the bag drop queue. The area is clogged with abandoned baggage carts, because there is nowhere to put them, and no easy way to leave the area while pushing one. We now notice that people coming through the bag tag lanes on the far right have started a separate tail for the same queue, so there is pretty much no escape after dropping your bag.
Each passenger places his bag on the belt, and it is conveyed towards a scanner. Just before going into the scanning machine it hits a scale. A screen lights up and tells the weight of the bag in kilograms, in green if it is within limits, and in red if it is overweight. There are a lot of red alert bags. At this point the owner of the bag, who would have already been out of earshot if it weren't for the fact that the line is difficult to escape, gets to start his or her argument with the Air Canada employee supervising the belt, over why he thinks 37 kg is okay. The bag now needs to be hauled backwards through the line to the counter where customers are supposed to pay their excess baggage fees. But by this point customers are so hostile, and the actual logistics of getting the bag off the belt and the customer to the counter so daunting, that I'm pretty sure the bags were just getting HEAVY/LOURD stickers and continuing without the extra payment being made.
I overheard the guy with the HEAVY stickers saying that he was running out of stickers. I placed my bag on the belt and watched to see the weight. I knew it wasn't overweight, but I wanted to see. No weight displayed on the screen. I think their solution to running out of HEAVY tags was to disable the weight display function of the belt.
The best thing I can say for the system is that it gave me an insight into Canada's medical system: Canadians don't horribly object to standing in line, but we're outraged by anyone budging in front of us without a fair reason.
Ah the joys of air travel