Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.

Which airline is most likely to get you there on time?

Many people from around the world only became familiar with FlightRadar24.com after the Mar. 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, when many turned to the flight tracking site to trace the final route taken by the missing Boeing 777.

FlightRadar24 is, not surprisingly, a goldmine for aviation buffs, given features that include the ability to see what’s passing overhead right now and to even put yourself in the Captain’s seat. (Simply click on a flight, then on the 3D button on the left hand side.)

It also offers plenty of information for number-crunchers, such as data on the on-time performance of individual aircraft.

Normally, an airline’s on-time record is measured in simple percentage terms: the percentage of flights that arrived within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. But that doesn’t tell you much about your chances of making a tight schedule work flawlessly.

So, I came up with something a bit different. I picked, at random, 31 individual airliners that fly under the colours of six airlines that serve Winnipeg: Air Canada, Air Transat, Delta, Sunwing, United and WestJet, including both mainline and connector services.

I then copied as much arrival and departure information as the site collected — a total of 897 take-offs and landings between Mar. 29 and April 6 — and pasted it into a spreadsheet. I then set out to estimate the normal “arrival window” you can expect to have if you were to fly any of the six airlines — the gap between the earliest 10 percent and latest 10 percent of arrivals, to give you an idea of what passes for normal at each airline.

If getting there on time is crucial — such as for an appointment or wedding, or to catch a connecting flight or a cruise ship — then Delta appears to be your safest bet, as the middle 80 percent of its flights arrived between 20 minutes early and just 15 minutes late. Among Canadian carriers, Air Canada bested WestJet by 14 minutes, but holiday carrier Air Transat seemed to do slightly better than both.

Airline on-time performance

Airlines that might best be avoided if getting there on-time is a concern include United, which had both some of the earliest but also the latest arriving flights, and Sunwing, which arrived anywhere from 21 minutes early to more than an hour and a half late on the middle 80 percent of its flights.

Sunwing’s on-time performance is probably less of a concern due to it being a charter airline and not a full-service network carrier. United’s scheduling problems are more likely to derail travel plans given that the carrier also tends to aggressively sell tight connections of less than 60 minutes at sprawling, congested hubs such as Newark Liberty and Chicago O’Hare. (That these airports are prone to aerial traffic jams and bad weather could explain United’s uneven performance.)

But if you have no crucial meetings to attend or connections to make, then it will probably suffice just to know the typical or “median” performance of each airline. In this case, all of the airlines come out smelling of roses: Delta was the most cautious scheduler, with the typical flight arriving nine minutes early, while Sunwing was the most optimistic scheduler, with the typical flight arriving six minutes late.

Based on:

224 Air Canada-branded flights operated by Embraer 190s C-FHKI and C-FHNY, Airbus A320 C-FKCR, Jazz Dash 8-300 C-GABP,  Dash 8-400 C-GGFP, Canadair RJ-700 C-GPJZ and Boeing 767 C-GSCA.

227 Delta-branded flights operated by Boeing 737s N3730B and N3750D, Embraer 170s N604CZ and N638CZ, CRJ-200 N8891A, and MD-88s N963DL and N982DL.

52 Air Transat flights operated by Airbus A330s C-GKTS, C-GTSO and C-GTSR.

133 United-branded flights operated by Boeing 737s N14735 and N36444, Embraer 145s N16147 and N16151, Airbus A320 N430UA, and CRJ-700 N705SK.

87 Sunwing flights operated by Boeing 737s C-FGVK, C-FTDW and G-FDZY.

174 WestJet and Encore flights operated by Dash 8 C-FHEN and Boeing 737s C-FRWA, C-FWCN, C-FXWJ and C-GLWS.

Note: Since FlightRadar24 records landing times, an average taxi time of five minutes was used to estimate gate arrival time.

Flying this Summer? How much connection time is enough?

Updated July 13. I learned that FlightAware has a bug that causes final approach or touchdown times to be recorded as gate arrival times. So, I revised my information using FlightStats.com, which uses gate arrival times. Changes are highlighted in coloured font.

As the school year ends here in Manitoba, many people are preparing to fly away on summer vacations across the country and around the world. While Winnipeg is linked by non-stop flights to all major Canadian cities between Vancouver and Montreal, and by regional jets to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Chicago, Winnipeggers have to catch a connecting flight to get almost anywhere else.

While most people choose their flights based on price and travel time, it’s important to remember that it won’t be the low fare or the speed with which you got to your destination that you’ll remember in the long run — it will be the fun (or miserable) time you had on your vacation.

A missed connection can push the needle strongly in the “miserable” direction — especially during the busy summer season, when flights might be booked solid for several days to come.

How much connection time is enough?

The airlines themselves are pulled in two opposite directions on this. It’s in their interest to get passengers, bags and planes to their destinations as timely as possible, but it’s also in their interest to have their flight come up at the top when a passenger sorts options by travel time on a third-party site like Expedia or TripAdvisor.

The result is a time that is rushed, but reasonable, provided that the inbound flight arrives on time.

Flights don’t always run on time, though. I went on FlightStats.com and picked out 179 random flights operated system-wide between July 5 and July 13 by Air Canada, WestJet, United and Delta and their regional partners.

WestJet had the most realistic schedule of all, with the 46 WestJet-branded flights arriving, on average, just three minutes later than scheduled.

Delta’s 40 flights were also fairly timely, with the average flight arriving four minutes behind schedule.

The Star Alliance was a little more tardy, with the 56 Air Canada-branded flights arriving, on average, 14 minutes behind schedule; and the 37 United-branded flights arriving, on average, 21 minutes late.*

All together, all but the worst 15 percent of the 179 flights examined arrived at their destinations within 31 minutes of their scheduled time, and all but the worst five percent arrived within 63 minutes of scheduled arrival time.

Therefore, consider the following prudent connection times if you’re traveling by air this summer:

Connection Type

Typical Airline Minimum Connection Times

Recommended Connection Time if a missed connection would be a . . .

 

Pain in the Arse

Total Catastrophe

Domestic

(e.g., Winnipeg-Halifax via Toronto and vice versa)

30-45 mins.

75-90 mins.

90 mins. to two hours

Winnipeg to the U.S. via Canada

(e.g., Winnipeg-Los Angeles via Calgary)

50-70 mins.

More than 90 mins.

Two hours or more

U.S. to Winnipeg via Canada

(e.g., Seattle-Vancouver-Winnipeg)

60-70 mins.

1.75 hours or more

More than two hours

Winnipeg to the U.S. via the U.S.

U.S. to Winnipeg via the U.S. 

(e.g., Winnipeg-New York and back, via Minneapolis) 

30-45 mins.

75-90 mins.

90 mins. to two hours

Winnipeg to International via Canada or the U.S.

(e.g., Winnipeg-Paris via either Montreal or Chicago)

40-75 mins.

2 hours or more

2.5 hours or more

International to Winnipeg via Canada or the U.S.

(e.g., London-Winnipeg via Toronto)

60-90 mins.

2 hours or more
(2.5 hours via Chicago)

2.5 hours or more
(3 hours via Chicago)

Note that these minimums only apply if you arrive at the connection airport with a boarding pass for your next flight, which shouldn’t be a problem if you booked all your flights at the same time.

Some people book two separate legs, however, such as Winnipeg to a European gateway city on a standard airline, and then from the gateway city to the final destination on a low-cost airline. Since neither airline will help you if there’s a missed connection, add at least a couple of hours to the recommended times above.

 

* – The median, or typical, delays were a little more flattering, though it should be cautioned that the sample of flights per airline was rather small. Delta was the most conservative scheduler, with the typical flight arriving nine minutes early. The typical United flight arrived one minute early, while the typical WestJet flight arrived two minutes late and the typical Air Canada flight arrived six minutes late. 

Back-to-Work Legislation: Once started, a difficult habit to break

The federal Conservative government hasn’t been shy about using back-to-work legislation to quell the possibility of strikes in the transportation industry, a sector that comes under the Canada Labour Code’s purview.

First, back-to-work legislation was applied to Air Canada, whose uncertain future was discussed on this blog two months ago. Now it’s CP Rail’s turn.

Back-to-work legislation might be something to be used more sparingly in the future, though, as it can turn into an open-ended invitation for a business to pass the buck to government, and can result in lower wages (and the resulting lower tax revenues).

So suggests a 2010 C. D. Howe Institute report, which reported that back-to-work legislation can end up with the government having to take responsibility for the private sector’s problems — the opposite of what many small-c conservative governments nominally stand for.

These results suggest that back-to-work legislation negatively affects the ability of labour and management to take responsibility for fashioning their own solutions to problems by increasing their reliance on third parties and postponing negotiations to the next round. If the two sides of the agreement know the [government] will make the hard decisions for them, they have no reason to do so themselves. Back-to-work legislation may be appealing as a way to resume public services, but its long-term consequences could be negative.

 Among those negative consequences: lower wages in the resulting settlement.

The net effect: real wage levels compared to otherwise similar contracts are lower after back-to-work legislation. Wage levels eventually decrease to 2.9 percent below otherwise similar contracts by the time of the next contract, making the total reduction in take-home pay significant.

Even averting a strike doesn’t necessarily prevent public inconvenience, as the report notes that back-to-work legislation can encourage “work-to-rule, illegal strikes, and slowdowns”.

Tough times loom for Air Canada

What was supposed to be a routine Thursday night trip home for thousands of Canadians turned into an ordeal late last week, as Air Canada flights landed at Toronto Airport and were then unable to unload their passengers because the airline staff who open the doors and unload the bags had gone on a wildcat strike.

Those following on Twitter witnessed the drama live, as passengers turned on their wireless devices and began describing what was going on around them.

“Landed! An hour delayed not bad. Not like others who were delayed 5 hours or more,” CTV Toronto reporter Naomi Parness wrote on her Twitter account.

“Passengers just answered the phone at D36 since #AirCanada crew are absent,” passenger Lois Miller tweeted from a departure gate.

The wildcat strike culminated one of Air Canada’s most hellish weeks in years, coming seven days after Parliament passed a controversial bill meant to avert a strike at the nation’s largest airline. It also came four days after Aveos, formerly known as Air Canada Technical Services, abruptly went out of business, leaving several of Air Canada’s jets inoperable.

The incident that reportedly caused the strike: the suspension of several employees who sarcastically slow-clapped and called out mockingly to federal labour minister Lisa Raitt as she walked through Toronto Airport on Thursday. Raitt had guided the legislation through Parliament the preceding week which prevented airline workers from going on strike.

The legislation might not have been as helpful to Air Canada as it initially appeared.

The strike was “a direct result of the frustration the workers are feeling as a result of the government intervention in the free collective-bargaining process,” George Smith, Air Canada’s former employee relations director, told a reporter on Friday, adding that “it may harm the union’s agenda and certainly gives rise to people, who are anti-union to begin with, to say: ‘Just look what happens.'”

Indeed, the strike led some commentators to call for the disbanding of the airline’s unions and for foreign airlines to be allowed to fly domestic routes within Canada.

Others asked why Air Canada can’t be more like non-unionized WestJet, which has had little in the way of labour troubles.

Aside from the unionization issue, two huge barriers stand in the way of Air Canada becoming more like WestJet.

The first is that Air Canada lacks outside enemies — or at least any that employees and management can agree upon.

Yes, WestJet is taking market share away from Air Canada, but Air Canada employees are generally indifferent to or even respectful of WestJet’s accomplishments over the past 16 years.

Instead, many Air Canada employees see their own company’s management as the most ominous threat to their interests.

This sentiment can be seen in the comments left by Air Canada employees on RateMyEmployer.ca, a web site that encourages users to anonymously offer advice or warnings to would-be co-workers.

“I am a pilot at Air Canada. I love to fly, and it’s great when we’re ‘off campus’ on the other side of the world,” one commentator wrote. “The only time it is miserable is when you have to deal with management.”

“The worst managed company, just a bunch of greedy, money hungry bottem feeders trying to suck the very lifeblood out of us. Other then that, great guys to work for,” the unnamed pilot continued.

“Get out of there as soon as you can,” an anonymous former management employee advised those still working for the airline. “It is not worth the stress and things won’t get better no matter how long you wait. There is a much better world out of that place.”

“Horrible company, glad that I am laid off and can finally get on with my life,” a former Air Canada employee wrote. “Poisonous atmosphere, not organized at all, high stress, no feedback or direction from management.”

The last comment raises a disturbing question: Do employees feel trapped inside a company that is descending into corporate civil war, terrified on one hand of losing their income during a recession, yet not entirely averse to a catastrophe that would at least set them free to get on with their lives?

That brings us to the second barrier to Air Canada becoming more like WestJet: Air Canada employees are vulnerable to feeling trapped by their seniority.

Take a pilot or flight attendant as an example. Once hired by Air Canada, the new crew member starts at the bottom of the seniority list. The pay is poor, and the work schedule is unpredictable due to new hires being assigned to “reserve duty”, which means being on call to replace a more senior employee who can’t make a flight.

After several years, the hours and the pay start to get better.

But what do you do if you tire of the job at age 50?

By that age, a career change carries a heavier financial penalty than it would at ages 40 or 45, when there are still 20 years or more to fully recover prior to retirement.

The disgruntled employee could always go apply for a job at WestJet or Porter — and start over as a new hire, which is hardly a desirable thought.

In theory, the “seniority trap” should make for a pliant workforce. In practice, this trap is akin to outlawing divorce, allowing faltering or even abusive relationships to continue for too long after the love, trust or respect have run out.

Based on the reviews at RateMyEmployer.ca, WestJet appears to be going through morale problems of its own as it ages and no longer feels as threatened by Air Canada as it did in its early days, when WestJet’s survival seemed less certain.

WestJet employees, however, tend to be younger and are freer to walk away from the airline if things go sour. If the old saying that “the best social program is a job” is true, then the best promoter of workplace harmony is having another job to replace the existing one with.

Air Canada, in short, is as trapped as some of its employees. With no common enemy to unite staff and management, and too few escape routes from an increasingly toxic work environment, the country’s largest airline will struggle to prevent its internal turmoil from translating into dissatisfied customers who take their business to the competition. It may very well fail to do so.


Now, if that just put you in a gloomy mood, here are a couple of YouTube finds that will cheer you up a little. The first is a particularly good compilation of TV news outtakes from various U.S. TV stations.

And finally, a call to Dorothy Dobbie’s gardening talk show on CJOB 680 that takes an unexpectedly hilarious turn. Have a listen.

Did Carlton St. shooting prompt Air Canada to remove crews from downtown Winnipeg?

An interesting post from “Longhauler”, seemingly an Air Canada crew member, on the Airliners.net Civil Aviation discussion forum. The shooting he is likely referring to is the Sept. 19th shooting on Carlton Street, about 350 metres from the Radisson Hotel.

Air Canada recently announced that its crews would no longer be staying at the hotel for security reasons.

No this decision came from the Corporate Security department of the airline. This large department is always doing “risk assessment” everywhere Air Canada flies. Not just for aircrew safety when away from base, but also for passengers and aircraft.

 For example, a few years back, there was concern about Tel Aviv. As a result, aircraft and crew were laying over in Cyprus, then shuttling back and forth to pick up and drop off passengers. These types of risk assessments are continually done everywhere worldwide Air Canada flies.

 In the case of Winnipeg, if I understand correctly, the final straw was a murder in the parking lot of the hotel during daylight hours. Combined with continued concern from police reports, the risk was considered too high.

Thus, the decision to pull crews from downtown Winnipeg likely wasn’t driven by the availability of a better deal at the Sandman Hotel or to make some kind of point on the eve of a provincial election — just by the desire to protect the airline from lawsuits and operational problems.

Love or hate Air Canada’s crews and onboard service, you have to at least applaud their safety-first mindset, without which the airline wouldn’t have gone 28 years without a fatal accident. (The most recent fatal accident: the June 2, 1983 DC-9 fire in Cincinnati.)

* – See also Jean Leloup’s thoughtful post on Winnipeg’s pros and cons from a Calgarian’s point of view.

Airline industry grows up

One day in 1958, someone in the sales department of SAS, the state airline jointly owned by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, came up with what he thought would be a clever line to attract more high-fare business travelers to the airline.

“On our planes you won’t find rubbery indigestibles wrapped in cellophane,” the unknown author wrote in reference to SAS’s supposedly tastier sandwiches in a sales letter to prospective clients.

Eventually a copy of the letter ended up in the hands of Trans World Airlines (TWA), a major U.S.-based competitor of SAS’s on the North Atlantic routes — and it was SAS that ended up with a very expensive case of indigestion.

Trans World complained to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global regulatory body for the world’s airlines, about SAS’s boastful letter. IATA regulated not just where airlines could fly to and how much they could charge; they even regulated in-flight service.

The dispute between SAS and TWA, and complaints from Pan American about the large sandwiches being served by four of its European rivals, are now remembered as the “Great Sandwich War” — and still sometimes recalled by historians as one of the absurdities of the airline industry’s pre-deregulation era.

The result was a two-day IATA conference in London that deemed that member airlines’ Economy Class sandwiches must be cold, made largely of bread, unadorned, self-contained and not filled with anything too fancy, such as lobster or caviar.

And SAS, was slapped with a $20,000 fine for slurring its competitors — equivalent to more than $150,000 in 2010 dollars.

It was TWA’s turn to be the aggressor in the 1965 Movie War, when other airlines complained that the U.S. airline’s expensive new in-flight movie system gave it an unfair advantage. After a short ban on movies, the dispute was resolved in 1966 when IATA ruled that in-flight movies were acceptable as long as passengers had to pay $2.50 U.S. (equivalent to nearly $17 today) to rent the required headsets.

The industry’s childish antics would continue for more than a decade more. By the late ’70s, however, it was time for a change.

Governments that had been flush with cash during the post-war booms of the ’50s and ’60s found themselves forced on to austerity budgets in the ’70s by weak economic growth and soaring inflation. The cash infusions required to help government-owned airlines replace the Boeing 707s and DC-8s that were nearing the end of their service lives, and to subsidize unprofitable routes for political reasons, were unwelcome expenses that governments were eager to be rid of.

On top of that, the public was clamouring for lower fares.

That set the stage for governments to get out of the airline business by deregulating the industry, privatizing government-owned airlines and signing “open skies” treaties with other governments. Once the U.S. deregulated its airline industry in 1978, it was only a matter of time before Canada followed course — which we did in the ’80s.

That set loose a 30-year hurricane of changes — mergers, fare wars, start-ups, bankruptcies, new job opportunities at some times and massive layoffs at others.

The toll could be seen by looking at the names of the airlines that served Winnipeg in 1978, the year that deregulation began in the U.S.: Air Canada, CP Air, Transair, Wardair, North Central Airlines, Northwest Orient and Frontier Airlines.

By 1990, all but Air Canada and Northwest had disappeared through merger or bankruptcy.

There were years of chaos left to go. Various newly formed airlines came and went at Winnipeg International Airport throughout the ’90s and 2000s: Royal Airlines, Greyhound Air, Vistajet, Canada 3000, Jetsgo and Zoom, just to name a few.

Fifteen years ago this month, on Feb. 29, 1996, a quirky Calgary-based startup called WestJet took to the skies over Winnipeg for the first time. Many (myself included) figured that it too would eventually fall victim to industry carnage.

Despite a rocky start, WestJet proved us doubters wrong through a combination of skillful management and good luck. By 2010, it was approximately the same size as the former Canadian Airlines International in terms of the number of passenger-miles flown and the size of its fleet.

As WestJet’s 15th anniversary approaches, a strange sense of normalcy has settled in at Winnipeg Airport.

WestJet itself has shed many of the quirky attributes of its early days, such as the singing flight attendants and the pass-the-toilet-paper-roll games, though the flight attendants’ name tags still have smiley faces on them. Now it does more “middle-aged airline” things, such as signing interline and code-sharing agreements with Delta and Air France. (Will membership in the SkyTeam alliance be next?)

Air Canada will always get its share of barbs as the country’s biggest airline. But it is a profitable airline, as its 2010 net income of $107 million suggests, and has had some success in convincing U.S. travelers to connect through Canada instead of through U.S. hubs on their way to international destinations, as the Winnipeg Free Press reported a few days ago.

And despite ongoing economic trouble in the U.S., both Delta and United-Continental announced today that they were profitable in 2010 and would be paying out profit-sharing bonuses to their employees.

After 30 years of post-deregulation turmoil, which followed 30 years of pre-deregulation bunfights over trivial issues like sandwich toppings, the airline industry seems to have finally found some degree of stability. It has finally grown up.

The trick now will be to make the stability last.

Was airline deregulation good or bad in your opinion? Share your thoughts below.


On a different note, most of us born-and-bred Manitobans were quite pleased to see headlines such as “Warm weekend weather” in the Winnipeg Sun and “A few more days of warmer weather in store‎” in the Winnipeg Free Press. But our pleasant mid-winter respite from the usual brutal cold can be a newcomer’s shocking introduction to what we consider “warm” around here, as I learned this weekend.

Please tell me they are joking when they say this is a warm day in Winnipeg,” a friendly recent newcomer from the U.K. begged me this weekend. I reassured him that it wasn’t actually warm, but still very mild for this time of year, hoping that it would ease his shock at learning that what would be called “extreme cold” in his homeland is sometimes called “warm” here.

So, if there are any meteorologists or other weatherpeople reading this, now you know: be careful how you use the word “warm” at this time of year, as it’s giving some of our new neighbours from abroad a dreadful fright.

 

Three sites that could make your summertime air travel less of a pain

Copyright © Macchupicchu-Inca.com

It was all smiles at Winnipeg’s James Richardson International Airport as Iceland Express’s first flight to Winnipeg landed in early June. For a non-North American carrier to start scheduled service to a medium-sized midwestern market like Winnipeg is almost unheard of, and many Winnipeggers were captivated by promotional fares offering the promise of a trip to Europe for less than $1,000 round-trip.

In less than a month, however, the “old-fashioned” way of getting from Winnipeg to Europe — paying a network carrier $1,000 and up and making connections in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago or the Twin Cities — would start to look good again.

This change came as passengers learned the hard way that the cheapest flight is sometimes the worst bargain of all.

On June 25, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Iceland Express’s twice-weekly Winnipeg flights had been plagued by cancellations due to “weak ticket sales”. Five days later, CBC Manitoba reported that passengers’ holiday plans were being reorganized as Iceland Express reduced Winnipeg service to just one flight per week with plans to suspend service entirely in September before re-launching the Winnipeg-Iceland link again next year.

Could passengers have avoided the headaches? The answer is yes.

Even before Iceland Express’s arrival in Winnipeg last month — even before the Iceland volcano caused travel havoc in Europe — there were warning signs that Iceland Express was an airline with severe reliability problems, flying as it were on a wing and a prayer.

Skytrax, a popular beefs-and-bouquets site for air travelers, has documented a series of trip reports that show that the problems experienced by Winnipeg travelers — canceled flights and no one being available to help make alternate arrangements — are nothing new.

Skytrax is the first site that could help passengers avoid air travel headaches. Along with raves about in-flight entertainment systems and rants about delays, the site is also filled with anecdotal information about airline reliability, baggage charges, whether or not you’ll get a large enough meal to keep hunger at bay on an overseas flight, and even on which airports you should aim for and which ones you should avoid when making a connection.

In addition to Iceland Express, Skytrax also has reviews on Air Canada, CanJet, Delta, Sunwing, United and WestJet as well as their codeshare partners.

The second site worth checking out is a unique search engine called Inside Trip. While most search engines focus on price, departure time and trip duration — the three things people tend to look at first when making a reservation — Inside Trip adds what it calls “flight quality” to the mix. Thus, a flight with roomier seats and a good on-time departure record will be ranked higher than a flight with more cramped seating and a spotty on-time record.  You can customize this search engine to include those amenities that mean a lot to you and exclude those that count for nothing.

The third useful site is Flight Stats. If it’s vital that you arrive at your destination on time or make a connection, Flight Stats allows you to compare the on-time record of multiple flights on a given route, as this examination of the Winnipeg-Toronto route shows. This site could also have tipped off travelers to Iceland Express’s reliability problems, as shown in this overview of the airline’s historical operating statistics. (Even if you make allowances for the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano, it still suggests that passengers should leave time in their schedules for long delays.)

Now that you have these three tools at your disposal, your outlook for a (relatively) problem-free flight this summer has just improved considerably. Happy traveling!

Transair: A Look Back at Winnipeg’s Hometown Airline

(Update, Jan. 24, 2011: A warm welcome to the visitors who, even nearly 10 months after publication, continue to drop in  to read this post at an average rate of 20 readers per week. Whether you were a Transair employee or customer, or even just an interested observer, you are invited to contribute your stories and memories in the comments section below.)

Think of passenger airlines operating in Canada today, and chances are that two will come to mind: Montreal-based Air Canada or Calgary-based WestJet. There was a time, however, when Canada’s airline industry was much different.

Step back into the Winnipeg International Airport of 35 years ago, and you would be in the same building that stands today at 2000 Wellington Ave. The names painted on the sides of the jets parked at the terminal, however, would be much different.

Air Canada, of course, would have been there, at that time sporting a red-and-white livery. Northwest’s “red tails” were also a familiar sight, and would remain so for many years more.

CP Air, famous for its orange-and-silver coloured jets, also called several times each day at Winnipeg International. Frontier flew in once or twice a day from Denver, North Central Airlines showed up once or maybe twice a day from Duluth and Milwaukee, and Wardair operated the occasional charter to Europe or Hawaii.

Then there was Transair, with its easily recognizable gold-coloured fleet.

What made Transair different from the rest was that it was Winnipeg’s hometown airline.

A little more than 30 years have come and gone since the last official Transair flight departed Winnipeg Airport, just before the Winnipeg-based airline completed its merger with Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines on Dec. 1, 1979. Many people have only fading memories of the airline, and an entire generation have grown up never having heard of it.

For others, however, an attachment remains to the tough little airline from Winnipeg that operated in some of the most rugged conditions in the world, and did what it took to survive — even if it meant hiding a 66-tonne Boeing 707.

The story of Transair began in the spring of 1947, when a small airline called Central Northern Airways was launched by Milt Ashton and Roy Brown.  CNA was by all accounts a small operation that specialized in serving isolated communities and base camps around the province. The company did grow, however, leading to a 1955-56 merger with Arctic Wings, an Ottawa-based carrier that also specialized in serving Canada’s vast northern wilderness.

With the merger came a new name: Transair.

Along with the name change came the need for new leadership — someone with executive experience to run an airline that now included more than 40 aircraft in its fleet and a 24,000-kilometre (15,000-mile) route network.

The man chosen as Transair’s first president took many Winnipeggers by surprise. Ron Turner was no stranger to the cockpit, having served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. His skills as an aviator were matched by his skills as a politician, which resulted in his being elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 1945. Turner was re-elected in 1949, and was tapped by Premier Douglas Campbell in 1951 to become the Provincial Treasurer — that is, Minister of Finance — at the age of 36.

Having reached the second highest post in government at an age when many others were only just beginning their political careers, many political observers saw a bright future in politics for Ron Turner. The fact that he was still in the Treasurer’s post at the beginning of 1956 seemed to confirm that Turner was Campbell’s chosen heir.

Thus, his sudden retirement from public life in the summer of 1956 to become president of an airline took many Manitobans by surprise.

Turner’s years at the helm were growth years for Transair. In 1957, Transair added Churchill, Man. and Red Lake, Ont. to its route map, gaining aircraft and employees from Canadian Pacific Airlines, which was no longer interested in serving these communities.

In 1961, the company picked up valuable work ferrying workers and supplies to Distant Early Warning systems (DEW) in the far north.  These remote stations were under construction by joint Canada/U.S. agreement to protect North America from attack from the Soviet Union.  At about the same time, Transair launched Winnipeg-Thompson service.

That year, Transair made a profit of $107,000 — the equivalent of about three quarters of a million dollars today.

Transair added destinations in northwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan and southern Alberta beginning in 1963, though profits often remained elusive  on these routes.

Amid the growth came some degree of chaos, however.  On one occasion, Turner was quoted by a reporter complaining that the company’s aircraft were sometimes “even running into each other on the ground”.

By 1965, Transair had reached a turning point. If it was to continue to expand both its passenger and cargo services, it would need to upgrade its fleet, which was heavily reliant on unfashionable older propeller-driven aircraft.  That same year, Transair experienced an unexpected shock: president Ron Turner suddenly died at age 50.

Following Turner’s death, Max Martyn moved into the president’s office. But he would not stay long at the helm. By 1967, Transair’s board had decided that the best person to modernize Transair’s fleet and improve the company’s finances would be a young U.S. airline executive named Hal Cope.

Arriving in Winnipeg, Cope found plenty of room for improvement at Transair.

“When I became president of Transair in 1967 the company was not in very good shape,” Cope wrote in a March 2010 e-mail to the author.  “Its route structure was weak, the fleet of 6-7 different types of aircraft was a dog’s breakfast, and its financial forecast for the future was nothing but bad weather.”

One of Cope’s first tasks as president was to work with a U.S. airline consultancy called Lorenzo and Carney which had been hired by the previous management to offer Transair advice on which aircraft to buy. The consultancy’s co-founders, Frank Lorenzo and Bob Carney, were to present their findings to a special meeting of the Transair board in Thompson, a remote mining town located 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of Winnipeg.

Lorenzo suggested that Transair purchase Boeing 737s, a 100-seat short-haul aircraft that was just entering the marketplace. Cope, however, felt that it wasn’t the right time for Transair to place an order.

“It was my view that we needed to rationalize our fleet and strengthen our route structure to support jet equipment, and in addition, I had over $300,000 worth of unpaid bills [$1.8 million in 2010 dollars] in my lower right hand desk drawer,” Cope wrote.

“I fired them on the spot and told them to catch our mid afternoon flight back to Winnipeg.”

Years later, Lorenzo would become one of the most notorious airline CEOs in history for using the bankruptcy courts to tear up contracts and make deep wage cuts at Continental Airlines. He would then take control of Eastern Airlines and, instead of merging it with Continental, would be accused of stripping Eastern of its assets and leaving the airline for dead. (Eastern went out of business in January 1991, less than a year after Lorenzo vacated the executive suite at its parent company.)

“I am probably the only guy in the world to fire Frank Lorenzo,” Cope wrote.

Instead of purchasing 737s, Transair purchased two YS-11 turboprops in 1968. These replaced the company’s aging DC-4s and could be flown into small northern airports in a mixed passenger/cargo configuration. The YS-11s would remain in Transair’s fleet until 1979.

“The YS-11 was a true workhorse, and served its role well,” recalled Kelly Walker, who had family connections to the airline, and who would himself work for Transair as an air cargo agent in Churchill from 1978 to 1980.

Much of Transair’s business at the time came from serving small northern communities, which relied on Transair to deliver the mail on behalf of Canada Post and to deliver supplies for HBC’s Northern Stores division — which meant hard work under tough conditions for Walker and others at the Churchill base.

“Large volumes of freight, foodstuffs and dry goods would travel to Churchill on CN, then be flown to these northern communities,” Walker wrote.

“Not working in Winnipeg, with a much smaller staff and possibly more demanding work environment, we probably weren’t as by the book as in Winnipeg.  I recall more than once when a Winnipeg Transair employee visited; they were amazed by the passenger and freight volume we processed, as well the conditions compared to Winnipeg.”

Among the employees at Transair’s Churchill base the year the YS-11 entered service: a young ticket agent named Peter Mansbridge.

“The Transair job looked like fun, and it quickly became just that,” Mansbridge wrote in his 2009 book, Peter Mansbridge One on One: Favourite Conversations and the Stories Behind Them.

“I was travelling around the West and the North, doing anything and everything that needed doing. I loaded planes and sold tickets,” he wrote. “I was once even responsible for keeping the engines warm on an old but pretty reliable four-engine DC-4 that ran supply missions to isolated weather and defence stations in the High Arctic.”

In 1968, a regional CBC producer overheard Mansbridge making announcements over the public address system at Churchill airport. Impressed with Mansbridge’s voice, the producer encouraged him to take a job at the local CBC radio station.

Mansbridge continued to win promotions within the CBC hierarchy over the years. In 1988, the former Transair ticket agent became the anchor of The National, the CBC’s nightly flagship newscast — a job he still holds today.

Mansbridge’s defection to the broadcasting industry hardly caused any ripples within Transair, however, as the airline was busy modernizing its fleet and strengthening its route network.

As the Sixties came to an end, Transair was facing a serious threat to its survival. It had a weak route network, with no access to major business destinations such as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. Within Manitoba, it was also facing competition from Midwest, another regional carrier.

Cope pursued a merger with Midwest in order to maintain Transair as a going concern. Although Midwest was the smaller airline, its president Jim McBride emerged as Transair’s new president, while Cope kept in touch with Transair as a consultant.

Strengthening its route network so that passengers could travel between Ontario and the North on just one reservation was another important piece of business for Transair during this time.

The solution there was to acquire Boeing 737s. The first 737s were delivered in the spring of 1970. Like the YS-11 turboprops, they gave the airline tremendous flexibility:  they could be used to carry passengers or freight, and could be operated from smaller northern airports. They could also be changed from an all-passenger to a mixed passenger/cargo configuration in about four hours.

Transair Boeing 737, Toronto, 1977

Transair Boeing 737-200 at Toronto, 1977. (Copyright © Bob Garrard)

About the same time, Transair was given government permission to serve Toronto. The Boeing 737s also allowed Transair to expand its charter business to  ‘sun’ destinations in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.

Despite the earlier confrontation with Frank Lorenzo, Cope wrote that 1970 was the “right time” for Transair to acquire Boeing 737s, and that they turned out to be “a profitable and reliable asset for the company”. These aircraft continued to fly with Pacific Western Airlines into the early ’80s.

Dutch-built Fokker F28s would join the fleet in 1972, and would stay with the airline until the late ’70s before being sold to a small airline in Papua New Guinea. These smaller jets were similar in size to what might be referred to today as a regional jet.

Transair system timetable, 1973

Transair system timetable, promoting the airline’s Boeing 737 and Fokker F28 jetliner fleet (Source: Airtimes.com)

In 1974, with Art Mauro at the helm as Transair’s president, the company acquired a used Boeing 707 from Northwest Orient so that it could operate charter flights to Hawaii and Europe. Soon afterwards, the company would also purchase Toronto-based Filmont Tours to help beef up its charter operations. Charters were an important part of Transair’s business, allowing the airline to keeps both crews and aircraft in the air longer.

Transair Boeing 707-300, Honolulu, 1975

Transair Boeing 707-300 at Honolulu, 1975 (Copyright © Royal S. King)

The 707, however, would not stay long in Transair’s fleet.

In 1976, Hal Cope returned to Winnipeg to assume the Transair presidency a second time from the departing Art Mauro. Transair was being battered by both an economic recession and high oil prices, the result being a $2.7 million loss in 1975 ($11.2 million in 2010 dollars). Losses soared to $3.8 million in 1976 ($14.4 million).

“Transair owed a million to the fuel supplier, and had a collection of unpaid daily bills totalling almost $400,000 in the lower right drawer of my desk,” Cope recalled. “On top of that, I owed [Air Canada president] Claude Taylor $600,000 on ticket consolidation I couldn’t pay. ”

Transair president Hal Cope, c. 1977

Transair president Hal Cope, c. 1977 (Copyright © Winnipeg Free Press, May 27, 1977, p. 15)

One way to pay off the bills was to sell the Boeing 707 to Biman Bangladesh Airlines. A creditor was making plans, however, to seize the Boeing 707 to settle their own accounts — a move that would have pushed Transair into bankruptcy.Desperate times called for desperate measures. Cope decided that the only option was to literally hide the Boeing 707 from creditors.

Hiding a 66,000-kilogram, 46-metre long Boeing 707 was no easy task, but the alternative was much worse.

“I crewed the 707 and dispatched it on a ferry flight to the Northwest Territories and high Arctic with instructions to the crew to keep it hidden in various places until I could get it sold to Bangladesh Biman Airlines, thus holding on to the life saving equity,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 3 e-mail.

This also required a trip to meet with the president and chairman of the board of Air Canada in Montreal to borrow $600,000 to keep Transair operating until  the 707 sale could be completed.

“When [Air Canada president Claude Taylor] told the chairman what I owed and that I wanted to borrow another $600,000 the chairman just walked out of the office without a word,” Cope recalled.

Eventually, Cope convinced Taylor to lend Transair the money.

“Hal,” the Air Canada president called out after Cope as he was about to leave the office, “Not so fast. Where is your wife?”

“At the hotel,” Cope replied.

“Hal, she doesn’t leave town until I get paid,” Taylor said.

“Well I now knew what the value of my wife was,” Cope wrote more than 30 years later. “At least in Canadian dollars.”

The sale of the Boeing 707 to Biman Bangladesh for $7.6 million was soon completed, allowing the jetliner to return to Winnipeg from its hiding place in the far north. A Biman delegation arrived in Winnipeg on a cold winter day to take possession of their new aircraft.

“Since we were in the midst of one of those famous Winnipeg ‘brrrrrrr’ winters, we had issued parkas to the Bangladesh reps,” Cope wrote. “The parkas were in Transair colors brown with big bold golden lettering on the back.”

Cope walked into the gate area to see the Biman representatives off, only to find the Bangladeshis spread out around the gate area, using the Transair parkas as prayer mats. Wide-eyed passengers stood around taking in the unusual scene, not quite sure what to make of the situation.

“I called Bob the PR man over and asked him what in the hell was going on.  He said, ‘Sorry about that, Hal, I couldn’t stop it, but I have gotten even with them. I put pork sandwiches on the aircraft for their nonstop flight to London,'” Cope wrote.

Despite the humorous aspects of the Boeing 707 sale, serious work remained to be done. In addition to the serious losses the airline suffered in 1975-76, Transair stock was trading between $1.25 and $1.45 per share in 1976, a fraction of its value in previous years.

Cope would later describe this time in Transair’s history to a federal air transport committee in bleak terms, saying that he found himself wondering “whether I’d be alive the next day”, with the airline having “no future to look forward to.”

If Transair were to avoid going out of business, it would need a saviour. It would take considerable effort to find one.

“There were no serious purchasers for Transair,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 2 e-mail. “Lots of talk, but no serious substance.”

News reports at the time suggested that Air Canada and CP Air had both dismissed the possibility of acquiring Transair. So did the Manitoba government and Nordair, a Montreal-based regional carrier that served Quebec, the Montreal-Windsor corridor and the eastern Arctic.

In the mid-’70s, Canada’s airline industry was still heavily regulated, with each regional carrier being assigned a territory. Transair’s territory covered Manitoba, northern Ontario and the northern territories.

It seemed to Cope that Pacific Western Airlines (PWA), the regional carrier serving Alberta and B.C., as well as the northern territories, might make a sensible merger partner.

“We had Toronto authority, which PWA did not have, and when I looked at the southern tier of airline routes flown by CPA, based in Vancouver, and Air Canada in the east, I saw the need for the merger so PWA/Transair could compete with the two trunk carriers on the big markets on the southern  transcontinental route,” Cope wrote. “It was a marriage made in heaven.”

Cope first suggested a merger to Pacific Western president Rhys Eyton in January 1977. By May, Pacific Western had agreed to purchase Transair for $1.75 per share and to provide the Winnipeg-based airline with a $3-million loan to help it stay in business.

There was still one problem left to solve. The only airports served by both Transair and Pacific Western were all in the Northwest Territories. Without bridging the gap between Transair’s Winnipeg base and Pacific Western’s Calgary and Edmonton bases, a merger would be pointless.

Transair route map, 1976

Transair system route map, 1976 (Source: Airtimes.com)

Pacific Western route map, 1975

Pacific Western system route map, 1975 (Source: Airtimes.com)

Airlines at the time weren’t free to add destinations at will. If an airline wanted to start service between two cities, it had to apply to federal regulators for permission, provide evidence that there was demand for the service, and show that the demand could be met without harming other airlines.

If the gap between the two airlines’ networks were to be closed, the combined PWA-Transair would have boasted a route network reaching from Toronto to Victoria — an idea opposed by Canada’s two “transcontinental” airlines.

Air Canada and CP Air, which had a duopoly on the Ontario-Alberta and Ontario-B.C. routes, weren’t about to let the combined Pacific Western-Transair enter that market. Given that any strong objections by them to a PWA-Transair merger could have prevented the federal government from approving the union, their opinion mattered — a lot.

Some took a dim view of Air Canada’s subsequent insistence that the ailing Transair be required to give up all routes east of Winnipeg if it wanted to tie in to PWA’s network.

In their 1982 book Regulatory Reform in Canada, authors W. T. Stanbury and Fred Thompson blasted the federal government for “foolishly [going] along with this thinly veiled blackmail”, which resulted in the routes east of Winnipeg being reassigned to Montreal-based Nordair — in which Air Canada had briefly held a controlling stake in 1978 — in return for Transair being awarded the life-saving Winnipeg-Regina-Calgary and Winnipeg-Saskatoon-Edmonton routes.

Cope sees things differently.

“Kudos must also go to Claude Taylor, president of Air Canada,” he wrote in a March 2010 e-mail. “He realized there was a need to support the growth of the five regional carriers if Canada was to have a responsive and reliable air transportation system.  He took a particular interest in Transair because we were the weak link in the chain.”

The PWA-Transair merger was approved in 1978, subject to Transair turning over its Ontario routes to Nordair. This took place in early 1979.

For many Transair employees, the merger was a bittersweet prospect.

“Morale was okay when I started [with Transair in 1978], but once the merger came through it was an era of uncertainty,” recalled former cargo agent Kelly Walker.

“Some saw it as an influx of more equipment and money; others saw it as an end to Transair, and our Manitoba based carrier,” Walker wrote in a Mar. 7 e-mail.

“Also I recall it being a sad day when CalmAir took over our Northern routes.  I recall them starting to redecorate our freight office.”

Over the next couple of years, Transair’s golden-coloured Boeing 737s would be repainted in Pacific Western’s blue-and-white colour scheme. Other aircraft, like the Fokker F28s, would be sold off to other operators. Employees would familiarize themselves in the ways of their new employer — or in some cases, move out west to PWA’s busier Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver bases.

“I obtained a position with PWA in Edmonton.  It was as a Loadmaster on their Hercules aircraft,” Walker recalled. “An interesting, exciting position, but it turned out to be a bad career move.  Laid off when they began selling off those aircraft.  Had I stayed in Churchill, most likely I’d still be in the Air Canada fold (in hindsight).”

Today, Walker is the administrator of a Facebook group that serves as a gathering place for former Transair employees and those with an interest in the airline.

On Dec. 1, 1979, Transair officially ceased to exist. Many employees would go on to work for Pacific Western and then with Canadian Airlines following PWA’s 1987 merger with Vancouver-based CP Air.

Some former Transair employees even went on to become Air Canada employees in the 2000s, following its acquisition of Canadian Airlines — which, like Transair in 1977, was on the brink of bankruptcy when it merged with Air Canada in 1999. Among them was Rosella Bjornson, whom Transair hired as Canada’s first female commercial jetliner pilot in 1973. She continued flying Boeing 737s with Pacific Western, Canadian Airlines and finally Air Canada, from which she retired in 2004.

Could Transair have survived into the ’80s or beyond? Both Hal Cope and Kelly Walker believe that the answer was “no”.

“I doubt that Transair could have survived until the ’80s.  PWA was backed by the Alberta government, Transair was financially weak, our route structure’s only strength was its service north, as Brandon to Winnipeg to Thunder Bay was not a route capable of carrying Transair into the future,” Cope wrote in a Mar. 2 e-mail.

“There doesn’t seem to be much they could have done, in some ways they were stuck in a bad situation, because of Canadian geography,” Walker wrote in a Mar. 8 e-mail.

“To the west, PWA had those markets locked up, and Transair couldn’t have gone head to head with them.  To the east, although they serviced Toronto/Thunder Bay/Dryden, they couldn’t have gone further.  They would have been going into Nordair territory, or even [into competition] somewhat [against] Eastern Provincial Airways, a Maritimes-based carrier.  To get the long haul Canadian routes, they’d have to compete directly with Air Canada or CP Air, and that would have been tough.  Although then it would even become political,” Walker explained.

Both Walker and Cope would end up in Alberta, Walker becoming a loadmaster at Pacific Western’s Edmonton base, Cope becoming a vice-president at Pacific Western’s Calgary headquarters until 1983.

After leaving Calgary, Cope would go on to work in Africa, pursuing not only his passion for aviation, but also his passion for the continent’s culture and wildlife as a safari guide, wildlife photographer and conservationist. His photography can be found in local galleries in Arizona, where he lives today.

Looking back on Transair, just over 30 years after its last flight, Cope describes the people who worked at Transair — many of whose names he still remembers — as being the most memorable thing about the airline.

“The best thing about the company was the employees.  Each and everyone were dedicated to Transair to make it a success,” Cope wrote.

“I could not have asked for more dedicated, professional, hardworking crew.  The Board was always supportable, Sutherland kept the bills paid, and George Capern kept the eastern division in play… I really enjoyed my time at Transair.  It was a challenge, but fun and interesting.”

Related Links:

Transair Facebook site

A second Transair site on Facebook, with lots of pictures

Transair fleet information (partially in German)

Air Times timetable images

The author wishes to thank Hal Cope and Kelly Walker for their generous contributions to this research. Both provided insights not readily available from secondary sources, and are owed a debt of gratitude. Credit is also due to the Winnipeg Public Library, which maintains a valuable archive of newspaper clippings from the ’60s and ’70s that saved many more hours of research.

Readers are encouraged to share their comments about Transair in the comments section below. The author can also be reached at mcdougak@mts.net or theviewfromseven@gmail.com

Welcome to Dubai. Please turn your clock back 200 years.

Given the number of Canadians who travel to Europe or Asia through U.S. hubs such as Minneapolis and Chicago, it’s surprising that plans by a Middle Eastern airline to fly into three Canadian cities a few times a week would turn into a major battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians.

That battle was in full swing this past week, as Emirates Airline, based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, made its case for increasing the number of flights the carrier is allowed to fly each week to and from Toronto, and for adding non-stop service to its Dubai hub from Vancouver and Calgary.

The added flights will mean jobs and millions of dollars in economic benefits to Canada, said Emirates. This is a one-sided deal where the UAE government wants the Canadian government to make all the concessions while the UAE makes none, said Air Canada.

It’s not as if many Canadians will ever have any reason to fly Emirates. Dubai itself is flowing with oil money, but is otherwise a sterile and stiflingly hot destination. From Toronto, Dubai isn’t on the way to much more than a few Gulf states and a few cities in Asia and Australia.  From Vancouver and Calgary, Dubai is really only a useful hub for the Gulf states and eastern Africa.

Emirates also gets mixed reviews for service according to posters on Skytrax, a popular airline rating web site.

The Dubai-based airline has the upper hand in this battle, however. “More choice” is a phrase that the public loves to hear, even if they had no intention of ever going to Dubai, Khartoum or Hyderabad. Talk to them about the fairness or unfairness of international air travel agreements, however, and their eyes quickly glaze over.

If Air Canada wants to win this war, then, it will need to find a different angle.

Since Emirates is owned by the UAE government, it might be worth Air Canada’s while to point out that traveling through the UAE could open up a different kind of adventure for Canadian travelers — such as a stay in a Middle Eastern jail for doing things there that we take for granted in our day to day lives in Canada.

A British pair learned the hard way this weekend that merely kissing a friend on the cheek in public in the UAE could lead to imprisonment on an indecency charge. The penalty for the two friends: one month in jail and then deportation.

It’s not the first time that travelers have found themselves not enjoying an extended stay in the Middle East for violating the UAE’s super-strict decency laws. An Australian man spent more than two months in custody between late September and mid-December 2009 for blurting out “what the f**k?” to an undercover police officer who grabbed him by the arm after he stepped out of an airport lineup to use an ATM.

Last June, a Lebanese man who had been living in the UAE for an extended period was arrested for wearing a slightly risque T-shirt featuring a nearly-nude Victoria Beckham. The T-shirt has been distributed abroad as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the risks of skin cancer. His punishment: one month in jail and then deportation.

In May, an angry British husband reported his wife and her lover to UAE police for having a tryst at a five-star hotel. The couple were each sentenced to two months in jail on adultery charges, with credit for the month they had already spent behind bars waiting for their day in court. (The lovebirds were deemed so dangerous by a Dubai court that they appeared in court wearing handcuffs.)

Even passengers traveling through Dubai as transiting passengers or who have just arrived have faced their fair share of troubles, including a British man arrested for carrying melatonin jet lag tablets (despite the fact that they can be legally obtained in the UAE).

Another British man was jailed for four years for having three-one-thousandths of a gram of cannabis on the bottom of his shoe. A Swiss citizen was given the same four-year prison sentence for having poppy seeds from a bread roll on his clothing.

Other offences that could get you arrested and imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates: religious proselytization, common-law and same-sex relationships, possession of pornography, possession of pork, or taking photographs of government buildings or military installations.

There is a good chance that Emirates will be allowed to expand its services to and from Canada. The politicians know that more choice in the skies and cheaper airfares are sure-fire crowd pleasers. That’s why re-regulation of the airline industry has always remained a non-starter, no matter how much turmoil the airline industry went through.

If you do find yourself traveling to or through Dubai someday, however, make sure that everything in your possession is squeaky clean and that your lifestyle is as pure and wholesome as a month of Family Circus comics.

Not that I’d recommend carrying Family Circus comic strips into the Middle East, lest the occasional image of someone kissing someone else in the fictitious comic book family land you in hot water for having indecent materials in your possession (to say nothing of the religious themes often found in the strip).

Oh, and one more thing about Dubai: no matter how prosperous it might seem, no matter how shiny and new the buildings look, make sure you turn your moral clock back about 200 years or so on arrival.

Reminder: When traveling, even as a transit passenger not leaving the airport, you are subject to the laws of the host country, including laws that might seem unreasonable or silly from a Canadian perspective. Canadian diplomatic personnel can, at best, only provide limited assistance. You will likely be treated only as well as the host government’s citizens are treated, so be especially cautious in dictatorships, theocracies and countries plagued by corruption and/or human rights abuses. More information on each country is available from the Canadian government’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade web site.