Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I have only flown commercial once when there has been an incident. It was a couple of years ago. We used JetsGo, which was a controversial Canadian startup that ran old, cheap, gas-guzzling Fokker 100's.
A little background on JetsGo:
They offered impossibly low fares which made them popular, but which contributed to their decline. For example, they would offer Toronto - Vancouver for $149 and the return leg for $1. There is just no way to make money doing that, but apparently that message didn't reach the owner, Michel Leblanc.
Michel Leblanc was on his 7th airline when he started JetsGo, after selling Royal Airlines to Canada3000 and then watching the amalgamated airline go down in flames - there were rumors of bad accounting practices on his behalf which covered up the fact that Royal wasn't doing very well, and in fact several lawsuits are still before the courts to determine if any fraud was perpetrated, and if so, by whom.
Anyway, it's safe to describe JetsGo's owner as 'sketchy'.
They also got a bad rep amongst pilots for charging flight crews $30,000 up-front for training, which they repaid over a number of years.
There were repeated incidents of engine failures and mechanical emergencies, and lots of complaints by passengers
There was a well-publicized incident in Calgary near the end of JetsGo's life when a Fokker landed on a runway sign in bad weather, then skidded a thousand feet in the ditch before going around and landing (successfully) a second time, and there were a lot of rumors of poor maintenance and not enough mechanics to do the work required.
When JetsGo finally ceased operations on March 11, 2005, they did so without any warning to the public, leaving 16,000 stranded passengers all across their routes. In fact, they took reservations (and people's money) up until 11:59pm on the 10th, when the announced bankruptcy. Most of those people will never see the return of the money that JetsGo stole.
Oh, and the pilot training agreement was structured in such a way that the pilots were not repaid any of the money owed to them, including lots of new pilots who had paid their $30,000 and hadn't even started training. Nice.
Now to my story:
It happened when the lovely Lisa and I flew to visit my mom on Vancouver Island for her birthday. At the time, I was on the EI gravytrain after my departure from Thunder Airlines and before my present job. I did some jobhunting during the trip as well, but the main part of that was we flew on JetsGo. A roundtrip ticket was $290 compared to $480 on the next cheapest airline, so it was a financial no-brainer, and even though I have some problems with the way the company operates, I figured the trip would be kinda like a fact-finding mission for me. Or something. Mostly it was just cheap, and I am ashamed to say that was my priority. We'll get back to the term "no-brainer" shortly though, trust me.
The trip to Vancouver was uneventful; we were an hour late arriving, which is neither here nor there. One thing Lisa pointed out was that the flight crew didn't make any announcements over the first one, when we were still on the ground at our departure point. They said we were next in line for takeoff (behind the 9 a/c in front of us I guess), and that they'd be in touch in the air. We landed in Vancouver without hearing from them, but I totally understand they could have gotten busy in flight, so I won't make any judgement about that either.
It's the trip back I want to relate. It was a normal flight for the first hour, just the typical bumps going over the rockies. I was playing my Nintendo Gameboy (get one!) and Lisa was reading the latest copy of Cosmopolitain when we both noticed it was getting kinda hot inside the cabin. We also saw the the other passengers around us were fiddling with the overhead air nozzles, so we did the same. The result; no air coming from the nozzles.
We were sitting in one of the emergency exit rows, as is my habit, which meant we were right by the wing.
I noticed the speedbrakes deploy, then the flaps and leading edge slats. I thought that was pretty strange as we were over the Rockies still, and our next stop, Winnipeg was over an hour away. I also saw the ground, and by ground I mean "rocks" were getting a lot closer. I pushed the "bongbong" button and a flight attendant came over. I asked her what was going on, and she laughed and told us that we sometimes change altitude for traffic. Lisa and I had been battling the flu over the last few days, stuffy head and all that, and we were both pretty aware of the fact the pressurization had failed. I said "nuh-uh, we appear to be in an emergency descent" and she said in a quiet voice "I don't really know", then turned and walked to the back while I was in mid-sentence.
We levelled off at 10,000 feet as we came to the foothills of Alberta, heading east. The descent had taken only a few minutes; I was impressed. I bongbonged again and asked the flight attendant what was going on. She said there was a minor problem, but that it shouldn't affect our trip to Winnipeg. The pressurization then went completely sideways, and our overhead air jets alternated between jet blast and no air at all rapidly. Both Lisa and I were holding our ears and as I looked around, I saw the vast majority of the passengers were also. The flight attendants were all at the front, with the curtain drawn. I haven't felt anything like that before, and I hope to never again. The pressurization was cycling every few seconds, and the heat was alternating between volcanic and non-existent rapidly.
After a few minutes the captain came on the speaker. "Hello folks, we sure hope you are enjoying your flight. We have had a problem with the pressurization, but it's all under control and we'll be arriving in Winnipeg on schedule. I'm sorry about the ear troubles, and we hope you continue to enjoy the flight."
Fair enough. The only problem was that the pressurization continued to cycle very quickly and that our eardrums were in mortal danger. I took a stroll to the back and I saw a flight attendant, a pleasant hispanic woman, holding her ears and crying. No, I'm not kidding.
We continued on like this for about 40 minutes, cruising over the icy fields of Saskatchewan at 10,000'. I wonder what the fuel bill for that leg came to? Eventually we noticed the aircraft in a climb attitude and that the fields were getting somewhat smaller. The F/o came on and said "Everything is under control. We are at 12,000 feet now and the problem has been resolved. Once again, everything is under control."
We started our descent for Winnipeg and landed uneventfully.
The disembarking passengers left the airplane, and as Lisa and I were still scheduled to continue on, I went up front for a quick chat with the flight crew.
I talked to the F/o as the captain was on a cel phone talking to dispatch presumably.
"So. what happened?"
"Well, it was just one of those things. We lost pressurization, so we had to descend. We ran our checklists and couldn't isolate the problem. Then the problem went away. It was just one of those things, a Murphy's Law thing."
"I'm a little concerned that the problem hasn't been looked at. It seems like we are getting ready to leave again. Has maintenance looked at the problem?"
"Yup, he's right here. He said there's nothing wrong with the plane"
The f/o pointed to a guy standing in the cockpit with a flashlight and a reflective vest.
"Has he swapped out any parts?"
"He didn't need to, the problem is gone. It was just one of those Murphy's Law things."
"Ummm. So let me get this straight. The plane has healed itself? If nothing has been done on the airplane, and troubleshooting proved inconclusive, what's to prevent us losing pressurization again?"
"We wouldn't go if it wasn't safe."
His smile was strained and he was done talking to me.
I don't think the flight was delayed by much when we disembarked right then and there, even though it took a few minutes for them to offload our baggage. We were fortunate enough to grab a connecting flight on another carrier home with little effort. I didn't ask for a credit on the unused portion of our JetsGo ticket, as I woouldn't be needing it. Ever again.
Yeah, I fly for a living and I know stuff happens. In and of itself, losing pressurization is no big deal. I also know how important it is to keep the passengers in the loop, but my main point is what I thought was a no-brainer before 2 nights ago. Planes don't heal themselves. Maintenance is more important that keeping a schedule. And you get what you pay for.