The Problem with Customer Support Chatbots

Fred Rogers, better known as “Mister Rogers” of the eponymous “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said that when you’re in need, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  And while that’s usually true when it comes to customer service, an increasing number of companies have decided to make it difficult for you, their customer, to find those helpers. And in one recent situation, that decision cost Air Canada about C$800 and a lot of embarrassing press.

In fairness to Air Canada, its problems began because it decided to be one of the helpers — to a point. Air travel can be expensive, and when someone has to hop on a flight last minute to attend the funeral of a loved one, that trip adds financial strife to someone who is already having a rough time. Unlike many airlines, Air Canada offers a reduced fare for those bereaving — again, that’s a kind thing to do, and let’s give credit where credit is due. But on November 11, 2022, something went wrong.

That morning, Jake Moffatt’s grandmother died. Moffatt was just a typical guy living in British Columbia, but his grandmother had lived in Ottawa, about 3,500 km (2,250 miles) away. To get to the funeral, Moffatt needed to buy a plane ticket. There are a few airlines with roundtrip service from Vancouver to Ottawa, and Air Canada is easily the most prominent. That’s where Moffatt started his search. As the Washington Post reported, “He received assistance from a chatbot, which told him the airline offered reduced rates for passengers booking last-minute travel due to tragedies. Moffatt bought a nearly $600 ticket for a next-day flight after the chatbot said he would get some of his money back under the airline’s bereavement policy as long as he applied within 90 days.” He booked the flight and got onto the plane a few hours later. Unfortunately, the chatbot got the policy wrong — Air Canada requires flyers to request a refund before they take to the skies. And Moffatt did not apply for his refund until after his trip.

Ridiculously, Air Canada didn’t just say “oops, our bad,” and refunded Moffatt the C$650.88 to reflect the discount he would have been due. Instead, the airline offered him a $200 travel voucher. Moffatt declined that offer and brought a lawsuit in small claims court. 

Air Canada didn’t give in. Instead, the ridiculousness continued. As reported by the Guardian, “the airline attempted to distance itself from its own chatbot’s bad advice by claiming the online tool was ‘a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions’” according to its court filings. Moffatt, the airline further argued, should have clicked on the link that the chatbot provided, which showed the actual policy — he shouldn’t have relied solely on the chatbot. 

The court wasn’t having it. Per Ars Technica, one member of the tribunal, Christopher Rivers, was very pointed: “It should be obvious to Air Canada that it is responsible for all the information on its website. It makes no difference whether the information comes from a static page or a chatbot.” The court ruled in favor of Moffatt, awarding him a total of C$812 — the refund he was due, interest for the delay, and his court fees. 

Air Canada paid up without any further objection or appeal, and given that the penalty (from the perspective of the airline) was rather tiny, they probably could have just kept on going on as if the whole issue had never occurred. But there’s reason to believe the airline didn’t have confidence that its chatbot could make more mistakes (or a very big one): after resolving the lawsuit, Air Canada removed the chatbot from its website.

Bonus fact: Running a lemonade stand in Ottawa is tricky. In most places, a kid just grabs a pitcher of lemonade, a table, and a lot of cups, and waits for passersby to hand over a buck or so for a refreshing drink. It’s technically a business, though, so the local government regulates it. As Global News (Canada) reports, kids (and their parents) need to sign a three-page contract that requires, among other things, that “If you post any signs on or near your kiosk, they must appear in both English and French (English first)” and “that kids report all revenue and donate at least seven percent of it to charity.”

From the Archives: Why Ottawa’s Airport is Called YOW: Shocking. Or shockwaving, if we’re being accurate.