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When a pilot’s candour terrifies his passengers

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, June 17, 2008.

MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS

Imagine this scenario: You are sitting on an airplane that is 45 minutes late for takeoff when the captain comes over the public address system to explain the delay.

The plane has not left, he says, because three of the in-flight attendants have walked off over concerns about a smell emanating from the air filtration system. The captain insists the plane is safe to fly and tells passengers that the airline is now in the process of finding staff to replace those who have grounded themselves.

Talk about putting your customers in an awkward and uneasy position.

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I was on Air Canada flight 139 from Ottawa to Vancouver on Friday in which that very scenario played out. And from the moment the captain announced the reason for the delay, I used Twitter to chronicle every twist and turn of the nearly 3½ hours we sat on the tarmac waiting for the situation to be resolved. (You can read my tweets at @garymasonglobe.)

For most of that time, the Twitterverse – in Canada at least – was captivated by the events as they unfolded on our plane.

The reason, of course, is because most everyone could relate to the impossibly difficult decision that had been foisted on us. Did we place our trust in the captain who said the plane was fine, or did we side with the flight attendants who don't generally walk off flights for no reason? Did we stay or did we go?

I'm not a terrific flier at the best of times. That is why the slightest bump usually causes my stomach to go hurtling towards my throat at supersonic speed. This was air turbulence of a different sort.

In the end, almost everyone decided to stay, including me (despite being urged by many on Twitter to get off the plane as quickly as possible). We seemed to arrive at a common judgment: The captain wouldn't be flying if he felt the plane was unsafe. He went to great pains to reiterate that point time and again. In the end he sold the passengers, which took a remarkable leap of faith on the part of many of us.

One of the three flight attendants who had initially refused to fly received enough assurance from the maintenance staff that the plane was safe that she returned. The flight itself was mostly smooth, an experience undoubtedly made more pleasant for those of us in coach by the free booze Air Canada sprang for to make up for the ordeal. (The airline would also give the passengers discount vouchers for future travel).

From that end, Air Canada handled the situation as well as could be expected.

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As for the incident itself, however, the airline is going to have to review its protocol around such events.

The matter was effectively a dispute between the captain and his attendants or, to put it another way, between the airline and the union. It was a difference of opinion that should have been resolved beyond the earshot of the paying public aboard.

We should have been told to get off the plane while the airline resolved what was essentially a maintenance issue. Once the airline had a pilot and four happy and confident flight attendants, we should have been allowed back on. I understand that the captain was trying to be as forthright with his passengers as he could, but sometimes discretion is a better option than unintentionally terrifying people.

Especially on an airplane, where every word a pilot utters is magnified 1,000 times and parsed for extra meaning. For instance, when the captain told us the situation was "extremely delicate" – as he did a few times – we all wondered what that meant? We were left to look at each other in head-shaking wonder at the implausibility of our situation.

Michael Tremblay, head of customer relations for Air Canada, agrees that passengers should not have been put in the position they were.

"Why alarm them when we know the plane is perfectly safe?" he said. "I think it might have been handled differently. I think we're probably going to talk to the captain about what information is appropriate to share with passengers and what is not."

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For me there is good news and bad in it all. The good news is the odds are extremely remote that such an incident is going to happen to me again in my air-travelling lifetime. The bad news is it's likely the last time I'll get free drinks in coach too.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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