Trip Report YUL-YYZ-GRR... a series of strange and weird mishaps... get a coffee and had a good laugh at traveling on Canada's national airline...
(Quick Summary: AC Pilot is onboard programming my outbound A320 for an A321 flight.. unaware for 20 minutes he's on the wrong aircraft type.. BEH 1900D Air Georgian..always fun and exciting... A pesky screw driver, Air Canada's sex line in Grand Rapids... A330 return - everything goes wrong from baggage check in, underbelly problems, lost flight crew, missed connections, interior cabin lights & a faulty entertainment system....)
Montreal - an unbelievable revelation...
(Just to inform you know I am a Montrealer and have flown Air Canada and other Canadian airlines for years.. and fly several times a year...but this one was a bit of an exception)
YUL-YYZ Dec 18th.. I'm heading out for a business meeting in Grand Rapids Michigan.. Itinerary shows me AC 407, Airbus A321 to Toronto leaving at 10:00am. I arrive at the long term parking area and find a spot right up front in the line closest to the main parking area.. All is well. It's early and I have time to check in, grab a bite to eat and head to the gate. I'm looking forward to my first A321 flight ever.
The terminal is pretty empty. Line ups at Air Canada are small. I check in using the electronic kiosk and get my boarding pass. The A321 seating plan was shown and I chose a new seat right at the back of the wing area next to the window. All that was left was to check in my one bag. The check in clerk was very nice and all went well.
I headed over to the restaurants, bought a muffin and coffee and watched the planes for a short while. No sign of the A321. Nothing special outside except a First Air 727. I thought they got rid of them but there it was. A few new CRJ's being delivered were talking off. Two AC 767s at the maintenance hangar and a lod of side lined AC DC-9s sat parked at the hangar as well. After a while I headed to the gate, 1A... 1A had an A319 waiting at it.. Anyways I went to the lounge at 1A and found practically no one there except for a small group of people.. I figured the A319 was the earlier flight and it would be leaving soon however there were no gate agents around. It turned out not to be the case.
After about 20 minutes One lady returned informing her friend that the gate had changed. Figures, no announcement was made. I went over to the central Air Canada counter for Rapidair and asked if it was changed to Gate 5A (or B? I forget) as I heard.. yes he replied. I suggested to them it would be a good idea to announce these things... He said they did and I had not heard it.. They had not but they did as I walked away, I turned back and gave him a look of annoyance.
Well gate 5A had an A320 waiting at it. I asked a Flight Attendant coming off the ramp if AC407 would still be an A321, he said "it's an A320". I told him it was suppose to be an A321 and he replied he didn't know that but the flight would definitely be an A320... well this was an early warning sign of what was to come...
We all got on the jet... the F/A even apologized to me as I boarded that the jet wasn't what I was expecting.. I told him to forget it because it wasn't his fault of course... gees, it's only a plane but I was a bit disappointed.. well we sat for a while and waited.. and after 20 minutes or so after we were scheduled to leave the pilot comes on and makes the following incredible announcement;
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking... I apologize for the delay but it turns out I have only just discovered that the jet we are in is not the plane I thought we were going to use. There had been a plane change and now I have to reprogram the cockpit for this type of aircraft......."
In other words he had no clue up until then he was in an A320 and not in an A321, or so that's how I interpreted it.... Imagine, the pilot didn't know what type of plane he was in and was programming it for the wrong aircraft type... Now if the F/A had only cared to mention to him my remark about the A321.... Is this unbelievable of what?? As we left the A321 came in and parked next to our gate... I sighed heavily...
That busy commuter terminal in Toronto....
Anyways we took off fully loaded about a half hour late.. arrived in YYZ in time for me to make my connection to an Air Alliance (Air Georgian) Beech 1900D flight to Grand Rapids.. This was my first connection to a US destination from YYZ . I must have walked about a mile to get to the gate.. There were at least 3 or 4 long corridors I had to go down in order to get to the US commuter departure gates that were about as far away in T2 from my domestic arrival gate as humanly possible. Picking up my luggage to recheck in the process. I was almost exhausted getting there...
Customs went smooth and was practically empty. Only a few questions but nothing out of the ordinary was asked. Security was a much tougher than on the domestic side. US agents were handling the metal detectors and they pulled me over and found a small eyeglass screw driver I had forgotten about in my briefcase. I had to go back and recheck it. They scanned me and went through the rest of my stuff.. all being very polite and nice and understanding.. I had no complaints and was impressed they found that. I had totally forgotten it was even there.. An AC desk was nearby and I just checked my briefcase in for the belly. No problems.
YYZ has is set up so that the planes are remotely parked and you take a bus to the aircraft. The gate area handles all the US commuter flights and for 3 flights departing (Albany, Manchester & Grand Rapids) there within the hour was a total of about 13 people waiting... Two people went to Albany, 3 to Manchester and the rest to Grand Rapids... all 7 of us... on an 19 seater.. I waited about 15 minutes and then we were off.. The bus made a stop on the tarmac for that same A321 that followed us in from Montreal... the one I, and an unnamed pilot, was suppose to be on. It was beautiful looking at pass us from ground level literally a few meters away... all shiny and new..
It turned out the BEH 1900D I was flying was the exact same BEH 1900D I flew on to Windsor as an Air Georgian Ontario Express/Canadian Partner flight a couple of years ago.. C-GORF. Now it sported an Air Alliance colour scheme that was, well, ugly.. AC dark green and half a white maple leaf traced in red.. quite boring compared to the Canadian Airlines scheme it sported in it's previous life.
The pilots were a male/female team which was cool. Both about 27-30 years old. The inside was the same of course except a bit more used than before.. I had a seat up just behind the propellers (4A).. we left quite shortly after we boarded. It wasn't difficult getting 7 people on board. There was lots of room and the plane itself is quite comfortable for a small plane. I could sense the same friendliness the Air Georgian personnel had as I had remarked on the Ontario Express flight I took those years ago.. The ladies were very nice to us all and the captain made a point to joke with us while still being professional.
The BEH revved up it's engines and started moving.. because you are so close to the ground you really get a sense of speed with these planes.. We headed out to the runway quite quickly. There was only an American F-100 ahead of us.. not much else to look at YYZ except Air Canada planes... including that A321 that followed our A320 in to YYZ earlier.. It must have been delayed at YYZ thus the reason for our getting an A320.... As the Beech rolled down the runway I was thrown back into my seat. The G-Forces on this little plane is quite startling... You really feel the speed and get the sense of flying in this plane. The engines are making a lot of noise, the plane is shaking a little bit and you are thrown into your seat... it's a blast!!.. not like the big jets, just better Anyways this plane rocketed down the runway and with a load of 7 passengers it lifted of, oh, two feet after it started to move ... ok, I'm exaggerating but it really wasn't much longer than some people's driveways..
The flight was smooth and quick, one hour instead of 90 minutes as scheduled... good winds. A nice view out of the big windows... Yes it's an ugly plane but I still love it.. like you love some ugly dogs, you know the ones only the owner can love.. well I don't own a BEH 1900D but it's just so fun I can't help but like it.
Grand Rapids was sunny and dry and the airport wasn't as busy as I recall on my last trip. A Northwest DC-9 was at a gate but the rest were RJs (ERJ from American Eagle, Continental and US Airways, and a CRJ from Comair)... Skywest (I think) had a BEH 1900D as well and that was about it. I think US 727 and Northwest 727s are the largest planes I've seen there but the NW 727 only showed up as I left.
We stopped near a gate and walked up inside to the departure level... It's more modern than Montreal's aeroquay.. the airport at GRR, Gerald Ford International (I wonder if it's international because of us?) is very modern as it was completely redone only within the last 10 years I believe. Two long fingers with standard elevated concourses and loading bridges for about 10 planes each. A320s/727s are about the largest size planes they'll see there on a scheduled flight. They are used on flights to Chicago and Detroit. Luggage retrieval was fast and efficient.
That nasty Eye Glass Screw Driver does me in...
My return flight was for Thursday evening. Air Alliance has 4 flights a day between YYZ and GRR. I was scheduled for the last departing at 7:15pm.. At noon we wrapped up our meeting and headed out for lunch with the intention of getting me to the airport to go "Stand by" (ha ha) for the flight to YYZ. I tried calling Air Canada from the office to reschedule my flight but amazingly couldn't get a hold of them.. The operator gave me a 1-800 number and it turned out to be a sex line!! Intimate moments.. and I was warned if I was under 18 to hang up..LOL!! Turns out that was the old Canadian Airlines number.. the GRR operator didn't know the difference between Air Canada and Canadian Airlines I guess.. Well what a joke, this time there were only 4 people scheduled for the 2:20 departure so I became the 5th, The airport by then was more or less dead. A Northwest DC-9 was at the same gate as when I came in. There was another Northwest 727 near by but I didn't see it until later.. there were ERJs and CRJs.. no sign of the BEH 1900D... Check in was at United.
Two families in front of me.. both going to Europe... one check in clerk. I waited about 15 minutes. A new clerk came out and helped me immediately.. While calling Air Canada to find out if the could confirm me on a connecting flight to Montreal he seemed so proud to say he was calling from United at Grand Rapids. I guess they don't get to do that often there, .no luck but an A319 and A330 were scheduled to leave near to my arrival time in YYZ... Also he suggested I not check my luggage but bring it to the plane.. I agreed but it was a mistake on my part...
At Security they put both my briefcase and luggage bag through the x-ray machine... and yes they spotted the pesky screw driver again deep in the bowls of my bag.. and a pair of nail cutters which I didn't even know I had... well first the scanned me with the wand.. made me point out my watch, my shirt pocket pen, my beeper which I had to remove, my belt buckle which I had to undo and shake my pants.. then they padded me down and frisked me... and gave me the ok to see another officer who had my bags.. I felt like I should had had a cigarette after all that... Two armed military personnel in full military garb looked on. I felt guilty of something but I don't know what... This new officer wanted to go through my bag. I wasn't allowed to touch it except open the lock.. I pointed out where the screw driver was and she removed it... then she found the nail clippers in my toiletry bag and proclaimed it harmless but felt compelled to go through everything else in there. This was scary because I haven't emptied it out for about 5 years and God knows what else was in there.. luckily nothing of interest.
I ended up with the option of rechecking the bags with the screw driver in it, having Air Canada mail me the screw driver back to my home, which also involved returning to Air Canada/United's counter or leaving it there. I choose to give it to her... too much trouble.. I went to the gate.. 2 people were sitting there.... this is big time travel eh?! One moment I'm in Schiphol with thousands of people around me from all over the world.. then there's this Personally I prefer this, much less hassle.. The plane arrived within about half and hour. The gate agent came and randomly picked two of us for another security screening.. I guess the odds of a Beech 1900D heading to Toronto on a Canadian flight must be high risk...? But I can't complain, better safe than sorry. Small airports and lack security is what got Mohammed Atta into a 757 heading for the World Trade Center in the first place. The Americans have greatly improved their security and it shows... we on the other hand are way behind and if we are not careful we may end up nullifying those US efforts by making our airports more vulnerable to breaches in security..not a good thing. The check in clerk then told us the lavatory was broken so we'd better go our business before we board.. A short time later we were on board.. this time I chose a seat near the rear for a better view away from the wings and propeller... The pilot, same gentleman along with his female copilot (or pilot I don't know who was who), jumped in, welcomed us aboard, did the safety thing and warned us it would be a very bumpy flight because of strong tailwinds... but the trip would be fast.
Take off was quick and gave me the same rush as on my previous flight.. We shot into the air in no time.. Almost immediately we made a 180 degree turn back towards Toronto... the turn was incredibly bumpy with the plane going up and down as well as sideways... I thought Oh God this will be a long flight and with the bathroom out of commission it might not be very pretty in here if this keeps up.. however it didn't. The view of GRR airport was amazing, sadly I had no camera... and the country side of Michigan was as spectacular as always. We hit 20,000' and coasted to Toronto in about 60 minutes with very little turbulance... Landing was spectacular as well. We headed out over Lake Ontario to land on the cross runway they built and opened recently.. The view of downtown Toronto was about as impressive as you can get.. with the sun reflecting off the tall buildings and the CN Tower standing out tall in all it's glory... nice touchdown and a quick return to the same apron with the other commuter aircraft... this time with some AC CRJs along side.. Nothing special at YYZ except BA's 777 and two Air Canada 747-400s at Terminal 1.
Now the Trouble starts..
A bus took us to customs.. all 5 of us heading into a large empty customs area... we each had an agent to ourselves, LOL! It took all of 2 minutes and I was out heading to find the Rapidair checkin...which I did after another round of walking forever.. The line up was small to medium size but with only two agents doing the work it was slow... finally I was called over to the other side where I checked into AC 420, an A330 to Montreal leaving at 5pm.. Sounded perfect.. it wasn't however...
First off Toronto's baggage conveyor system wasn't working so we had to put our bags on the side where they would all be handled manually.. Security was slow.. as always, nothing special.. no x-ray personal scanning, no stopping, no one frisked me or asked me questions.. I almost felt cheated and used and spit out . I waited for about 15 minutes and the plane was ready to board. All that went smooth.. It was fin 972, the same aircraft I took LHR-YUL the first week of this plane's operational life two years ago. I ended up on 24A with no seat mate which meant a nice spacey flight with lots of room.. An Economist magazine was left from the previous passenger and provided the necessary entertainment for what turned out to be an unusually long wait before actually lifting off the ground at YYZ...
Ok, remember I started my journey with the A321 pilot not knowing he was programming the cockpit of an A320 back in Montreal two days earlier... well, we start off here with a 10 minutes delay.. why, like my last A330 flight (same flight number but different registration number) the previous week, the luggage conveyor belt in the belly of the plane wasn't working and it was delaying them. 10 Minutes later the purser came on apologizing saying it would be another 10 minutes and that there were only 6 crew members on board because the remainder were stuck on a delayed flight coming into Toronto.. He said in all seriousness that Air Canada would still provide us all with the top notch first class service they always do... I just laughed to myself thinking this guy has never flown as a regular anonymous passenger on Air Canada..A few people trickled on board, stand by passengers I presumed. The flight was full except for my seat and the odd other one in my section... basically a full load. Some people started to worry about their connections as time passed. Many were going to London, Paris and Frankfurt. I overheard one conversation where the F/A assured the passenger that AC knew all those who were connecting and would accommodate whatever they needed if the delay became serious.. he said 40 people were connecting to Frankfurt alone with many more to Paris & London and that Air Canada would likely hold those planes until we landed. Well eventually we pulled back, about 45 minutes late 5:45.. and headed to the runway.. the plane made some seriously loud sounds each time the pilot tried to break the aircraft..Something seemed wrong. It felt jerky as well. Finally he announced we would be number 4 for takeoff.. planes were also landing so it would be another 10 minutes to wait... Well no such luck..
After a minute or so he came on again an announced he had a warning indicator on his control panel and would have to contact the maintenance crew to see if he could resolve it. He sounded genuinely disappointed. We broke out of the line and headed in the direction of the terminal and waited.. 6-10 minutes later we started to move and all I could think of was if he turned right we would head back to line up and if he turned left we would go back to the gate...left, right? Left, right??.. it was left... but, we went past all the gates and found a secluded spot out on the field and stopped. The pilot came on and apologized again, seeming a bit exasperated.. and said he would try and have this warning light fixed but assumed it was a computer problem that needed to be rebooted.. Well a lot of noise came from the belly like pallets were being moved or something... but that was never acknowledged... another 10 or 15 minutes went by and finally we got the ok from the cockpit and assurances the aircraft computers were working perfectly. It was a necessary reboot in order to clear a computer error.. no mention of the sounds coming from the belly.. seems to me it may really have been poorly placed luggage leading to a poor distribution of weight in the cargo hold.. but of course I can't say for sure. It would have been an embarrassing and uncomfortable admission if it were the truth. The breaingk noises also mysteriously disappeared.
We were 90 minutes late for a 53 minute flight. Those engines ran for 90 minutes going nowhere but around YYZ . Take off was fast and smooth.. again a spectacular glittery view of downtown Toronto, this time at night as we passed the core of the city over Lake Ontario.. nice site.... Many anxious passengers onboard hoping they will get their connections... well, one more problem, the lights in the cabin didn't work except the individual seat spots and the entertainment system also failed... This was not Air Canada's day... the flight crew did their best in terms of friendliness and those few on board managed to serve us all.. They joked about us eating with candle lights. I'll give them credit for that. No one really complained either which was rather polite of us. The plane landed 50 minutes later.. the flight itself was very smooth and as always on AC's A330, very comfortable. I have noted those each time I've flown and A330 or A340 there have been delays and it has involved either the entertainment system or baggage hold... I'm beginning to think these planes are too reliant on computers and high tech that either AC personnel can't cope with it or that it is simply not a good system... Being $6 Billion in debt surely isn't going to make these things run any smoother and maybe in the end all the short cuts they probably take now make these jets less unreliable than they would be otherwise..
Arriving in Montreal I spot another AC330 heading out to the runway.. not a good sign for our connecting passengers. Air Canada uses the A330 on only 4 routes out of the city YYZ-YUL (ferry flight for.. ) YUL-CDG, YUL-LHR and YUL-FRA all of which leave around the same time. As it turns out the Frankfurt flight was leaving. Those connecting to LHR or CDG still had 40-45 minutes to spare. The pilot announced AC had rebooked them all and would put them up in a hotel for a flight out today (the 21st). Other connecting passengers including one to YWK (which he said he openly thought was Yellowknife but was in fact Wabush - why would anyone got YYZ-YUL-Yellowknife??) would make it on time. The arrival gate was not 1D like he said it would be, it was gate 3 where the crowd waiting was full and tired looking and were on their way to Paris.
Now the last thing... baggage retrieval... usually my weakest link and again coming from the A330, like last week I was expecting a long delay... well, the ADM and AC came through this time.. Mine was among the first to come out and I was out of there... In a short time I had my car out of the long term parking and was on my way home... tired, but admittedly without real complaint because my original schedule would have had me landing at 10:36 PM instead of 7:30 PM..
So this really wasn't Air Canada's day. On the news last night there was a story about a YYZ-YVR flight that got botched because of the break down of the baggage belts at YYZ. Turns out only 1/3rd of the passengers got their luggage while the rest had been lost somewhere at YYZ. I look back to the incredible situation of the pilot unaware of the aircraft type he was in on Tuesday, then yesterday the A330 with a broken internal belly luggage belt, a delayed and eventually no show flight crew, a technical problem that sounded more like a weight problem, and internal lighting break down and finally an entertainment system failure.... All in all it wasn't a good overall experience except for the Air Alliance part to GRR. I've flown 5 times in 5 weeks and on all flights I've had delays of some sort.. It's rather disheartening. I know it's not easy for airlines to operate especially during winter and vacation periods. I don't know if I've just been unlucky or if there is really something wrong with Air Canada. I know they have serious financial problems and these sorts of things may be a direct result of that.. no money to make their equipment work properly, less training, less personnel, more pressure to get planes out of the gate.. a cut here and a cut there and suddenly nothing works like it should. With no real competition on the horizon I really wonder if any of this will get any better.. thankfully I don't have to fly for a few more weeks...