I flew to Winnipeg on WestJet Encore yesterday. It was the first time I had ever flown on the Bombardier Q400 NextGen airplane before. Basically it is an improved Bombardier Dash-8. The main difference that I noticed was that I didn’t think the plane was about to shake apart when we took off and at no time during the flight did I think it was going to fall from the air. A friend told me once while flying on one that he noticed fluids that looked like oil coming from the engine. When he pointed it out to the stewardess, she said, “It does that once in a while”. My favourite Dash 8 story was while flying on Air Canada after 9/11 and reading about how the doors on all planes were now fortified, the shaking from the Dash 8 was so intense that the cabin door and several overhead bins popped open.
In my defence I was flying out at 6:00 a.m. so at 4:30ish when I was checking in, I looked at my seat and never registered that it was right beside the engine. Despite that it wasn’t that noisy and the flight is less than 90 minutes. If I remember correctly, the Q400 series is quite a bit faster than the older Dash-8s. It was noticeable. Of course the flight was packed. Good for WestJet, not so good for me.
When I woke up at 3:45a, my Yahoo! Weather app was showing temperatures in Fahrenheit and not Celsius. It also showed it snowing in Winnipeg. I thought the entire app was working oddly. I was wrong. It was snowing in Winnipeg. Not some light fluffy snow like the movies. Bitter arctic snow that is designed to freeze Anaheim Ducks and take away their will to win a hockey game (it almost worked).
After spending some quality time in Winnipeg, it was time to fly home. I had some time to kill in the airport and it was recommended that I try Gondola Pizza. I did and it was so good that it is worth the flight to Winnipeg just to try.
I wasn’t the only one that thought so. As I was waiting to depart, Calm Air’s flight was leaving for Thompson and it kept paging this customer over and over and over again. Finally he sauntered up to the exasperated flight attendant and says, “I had to wait till they finished my pizza”. Yes, a guy made his plane wait for about 10 minutes while he waited for his Gondola Pizza and he admitted to it. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible pizza but I don’t think I would risk my flight for anything, even a really good pizza.
The flight home was packed as well but it was only 90 minutes and again, I had an engine seat. The Bose headphones drowned out most of the noise and it was a fairly relaxing flight home. Now if only someone would open a Gondola Pizzahere in Saskatoon.
Riversdale, one of Saskatoon’s original neighbourhoods, was once named Richville after an early settler. Despite its old moniker, the area has seen some tough times, but thanks to the current “Saska-boom” (this is Canada’s fastest-growing city), it’s becoming a true west-side success story, with new galleries and condos underway, and an indoor farmers’ market brimming with local treats like wild-boar sausage and fruit wines.
Red Arrow carries business travellers, mostly. But its fares arenâ€™t out of reach for students and others making personal trips. â€œOur typical demographic is a professional or a student that does have access to a vehicle, and they choose for reasons of safety and efficiency to travel with the coach,â€ says Stepovy. â€œThe decision theyâ€™re making is: â€˜Do I drive, do I fly or do I take the coach?â€™â€ Most drive. In 2006, cars accounted for more than 90 per cent of trips between Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. Air travel accounted for six per cent, and buses, including Red Arrow, accounted for only three per cent of trips.
It doesnâ€™t sound like much. But when somebody gets on board the Red Arrow, they usually come back; its customers tend to be enthusiastically loyal. â€œIf we get them to ride it once, theyâ€™re sold â€“ absolutely sold,â€ says Mike. â€œAnd theyâ€™ll tell 10 other people how happy they were.â€ Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith and former premier Peter Lougheed and his wife, Jeanne, have all been spotted on the black coaches that cruise along Highway 2 at about 120 km/h. â€œI find it very civilized,â€ says Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons, who uses the Red Arrow to get to Calgary and enjoys being â€œabove the frayâ€ of highway traffic, especially in winter. â€œIf Iâ€™m going down to make a presentation, now I have three hours in which I can actually sit and think and read and research and prepare.â€ This is perhaps Red Arrowâ€™s strongest selling feature: Travel time thatâ€™s enjoyable, comfortable and useful.
It was a tough sell, initially. The first Red Arrow coach that pulled out of Calgary on July 9, 1979, was even roomier than todayâ€™s coaches, seating 25 passengers at most. The coach had sandwiches, a big closet, flip-down work tables and cassette tape players pumping music into headphone jacks on each seat. Unfortunately, there were precisely zero customers on board to partake in these unconventional luxuries. â€œVery disappointing,â€ recalls Rick. Both Rick and Mike had become involved in their dadâ€™s company as kids â€“ working their way through the maintenance pit, the wash rack, the body shop and the dispatch office â€“ and both were committed to their dadâ€™s vision of an upscale coach service. But barely anyone noticed when Red Arrow launched. â€œFor a while, we were the best-kept secret in Alberta,â€ remembers Wilson.
I have always thought that this level of service would do really well between Saskatoon and Regina, even could be run by STC from different bus stops (by the Bessborough or downtown someplace). A partnership with wifi on the bus give a business traveller a couple of hours of time to work, relax or just unwind at a fraction of the amount it costs to fly to Saskatoon and Regina. I just did a quick last minute search on AirCanada.com for what it would cost me to fly from Regina and back to Saskatoon. I had to fly through Toronto. $458 (one way) for a last minute flight (via Toronto). I can also take Express Club for $124 plus fees, which is still almost twice the $138 that Red Arrow charges for a return bus trip. STC by comparison is $80 return for Saskatoon to Regina but the quality of service isâ€¦ how do I say thisâ€¦ really, really poor.
I am not a business man but I think there is a but of margin for a high end bus (oops, coach) service to run from Saskatoon to Regina. It would be interesting to see STC run a business class express from Saskatoon to Regina. There seems to be a big gap in the middle of that market. Whether the numbers support it would the next question I have.
In the last four minutes before the crash, the airplane sent a series of 24 automatic fault messages to a maintenance center in France. Among these, the first to jump out at experts involved a part called the pitot probe. Pitots (pronounced PEE-toes) are small cylinders that sit outside the body of the plane to calculate airspeed. The cost of a pitot probe is not high â€” about $3,500 each for the model on Flight 447, which disappears in the $200 million cost of a plane â€” but their importance would be hard to overstate. Without them, a planeâ€™s flight computer has no way to determine speed, and the automatic pilot shuts down. That means that if any of the pitot probes, sticking out into the wind, happen to get clogged with dirt or ice, the plane will suddenly revert to manual control, forcing pilots to take the stick of a half-million-pound aircraft in whatever conditions disrupted the pitot in the first place.
In theory, this shouldnâ€™t cause a crash. The probes can be compared to a speedometer in a car: steady on the gas, and youâ€™ll be fine. Pilots are trained to respond to pitot failure by maintaining pitch and thrust until the probes resume working. Most of the time, they do.
But during the period of manual control, the margin of error is thin. For a passenger jet like the A330, the ideal cruising speed is about 560 miles per hour. If you go much faster, the center of lift moves back on the wing, pushing the nose down and increasing velocity, until you soon approach the speed of sound. At that point, shockwaves develop on the wings, interrupting the flow of air and reducing lift. The nose of the plane then gets forced into a dive that the pilot may not be able to pull out of. Then again, if you go too slow, the airplane stalls and falls. A plane must maintain a minimum speed to generate lift, and the higher it travels, the faster it must go. At 35,000 feet, the gap between too fast and too slow narrows ever closer. Pilots call it coffin corner.
This is where it gets unnerving. Air France and Airbus knew the problem existed in the part but they decided not to replace the pitotâ€™s with an upgraded version. Again, itâ€™s only a $2500 part.
Looking over the recent history of pitot failure can be unnerving. Peter Goelz, the former N.T.S.B. director, recalled several episodes during his tenure, but one in particular stood out: the crash of Birgenair Flight 301 in February 1996. â€œWe had a Boeing 757 that had been on the ground in the Dominican Republic for a month,â€ he said. The investigation concluded that â€œduring that time, one of the pitot probes got an insect nest built in it. Well, the crew took off and flew the plane right into the ocean.â€ All 189 people onboard died.
The pitot probes on Flight 447 were even more vulnerable than most in conditions like those at Tasil Point. They were produced by a French company, Thales, and the model was known as AA. In the years leading up to the crash of Flight 447, the Thales AA was problematic in places where the meteorological conditions do funny things with water. At high altitude and low temperatures, water sometimes doesnâ€™t freeze. Instead, it hovers, but as soon as something solid â€” like a pitot tube â€” flies through it, the water flash-freezes to form ice. Until heaters can melt the ice, the pitot probes are out.
This could happen to any kind of pitot probe, but by the summer of 2009, the problem of icing on the Thales AA was known to be especially common. Why the probes were still in use is a contentious question, but here is what we know for sure: Between 2003 and 2008, there were at least 17 cases in which the Thales AA had problems on the Airbus A330 and its sister plane, the A340. In September 2007, Airbus issued a â€œservice bulletinâ€ suggesting that airlines replace the AA pitots with a newer model, the BA, which was said to work better in ice.
In response, Air Franceâ€™s official policy was to replace the AA pitots on its A330 planes â€œonly when a failure occurred.â€ In August 2008, executives at Air France asked Airbus for proof that the BA pitots worked better in ice, and faced with the question, Airbus conceded that it did not have proof. So it removed the claim from the service bulletin. Another five months passed.
During that time, another airline, Air CaraÃ¯bes, experienced two close calls with the Thales AA on its Airbus A330s. The companyâ€™s chief executive immediately ordered the part scrapped from the fleet and alerted European regulators, who then began asking questions. In their conversations with Airbus, regulators learned of the 17 cases of icing, and they also discovered, looking at those cases, that the failures seemed to be happening more often (9 of the 17 occured in 2008). None of the failures seemed to signal an immediate danger, so the Thales AA was not removed from service. Regulators simply asked Airbus to watch the problem and report back in a year.
It gets worse.
In private, some B.E.A. investigators agree that they have found things that disturb them. After the planeâ€™s final communication, for example, it took nearly 11 hours for a search team to be sent to Tasil Point. For the first hour, air traffic controllers generated a â€œvirtual flightâ€ on their computers, as is common practice, passing the plane along its intended route. For the next two hours, controllers checked periodically to see if anyone had seen the plane, and when a controller in Brazil asked a controller in Senegal if the plane had reached Cape Verde, the controller in Senegal said that Cape Verde hadnâ€™t talked to them but not to worry; so the controller in Brazil didnâ€™t. By the time Air France alerted a satellite search-and-rescue, 4 hours and 20 minutes had passed, and then it was another two hours before anyone notified the B.E.A. A search team lifted off in Dakar 10 hours after the last radio contact and for the next 45 minutes flew toward Cape Verde, where they assumed the plane had gone down.
When I asked the director of the B.E.A., Jean-Paul Troadec, if this was a suitable response time, he practically jumped from his seat and cried: â€œNo! Itâ€™s not! The alert should have been much more quick!â€ Yet the reports from Troadecâ€™s office draw no such conclusion. When I asked another B.E.A. investigator, Olivier Ferrante, whether it is difficult to write the reports without pointing out mistakes, he acknowledged that it is a matter of craft. â€œThis requires discipline in report writing,â€ he said. â€œFor example, we donâ€™t use the word â€˜fault.â€™ We prefer to use the word â€˜error,â€™ which has more proactive connotations.â€
There does seem to be an incredible lack of transparency when it comes to airline maintenance and procedures. If Air Canada or anyone isnâ€™t keeping up with maintenance regulations and suggestions, shouldnâ€™t that be public knowledge? The NTSB website isnâ€™t bad but it isnâ€™t proactive. How hard is it to list airlines who are compliant or non-compliant with the bulletins. They can even explain why they arenâ€™t compliant if you want to present both sides of the story but as an airline passenger, I want to know if the airline I am flying on is cutting corners when it comes to airplane maintenance.
â€œWhat scares me is Air Canada. They are not courteous enough. One thing which unites us, in this country, is our hatred for Air Canada.â€
I could not agree more.Â I havenâ€™t had a single flight on Air Canada where the actions of the flight or ground crew did not leave a bad taste in my mouth.Â While itâ€™s still better than a lot of American airlines, itâ€™s customer service compared to WestJet is appalling.