True North Strong and Free : Travels and Travails in Canada
by Sean Mendis  

Following my somewhat involuntary exile to Canada in April, my travel plans took somewhat of a beating and I wound up being grounded for 62 days, the longest that I have been away from an aircraft in almost 7 years. Hence, when on June 15 I heard about a promotion being offered by the new Canadian discount airline "JetsGo" offering free flights the following day, I just had to grab myself a freebie to Vancouver and back.

I arrived at Terminal 3 around 745am for the 9am flight subconsciously expecting to be surreptiously grabbed by a bunch of mounties and whisked away to a back room for questioning, but the only representative of officialdom at that hour was a greying parking warden with a potbelly that didn't quite strike apprehension into me. In addition to being only the third day of operations for JetsGo, it was also the second day of Tango's relocation to Terminal 3 - meaning that there were a number of very confused passengers (and employees) wandering around the lobby seeking the appropriate area.

I located the counters for JetsGo quickly enough, but decided to hang back a bit before checking in. In the meanwhile, I spotted a friend who was also flying these flights and headed over to establish contact with him. I then proceeded to the counters where I checked in for my outbound flights. The girl at the counter was somewhat taken aback when I said "No checked bags, no carry ons", but issued my boarding pass for the exit row without any hassles.

Security was a breeze since I had absolutely nothing on me and I headed down to the gate area. We were separated from the transborder sterile area by a simple glass partition, which brought the classic cliche "So close, yet so far" to mind. I stopped at the news stand to pick up a copy of the Toronto Star and the latest issue of Airliners magazine, and then moseyed over to the television set at a nearby bar where the highlights of a World Cup game were being screened.

Our aircraft today was C-GKLN, a former Korean Air MD-83 which had been repainted in JetsGo's ugly livery. Their corporate identity appeared to have been built around a horrendous shade of lime green, surpassed in tackiness only by a perennially annoying smiley face that stared out of every piece of corporate propoganda, an oversized variant of which benignly watched upon the huddled masses yearning to board from its vantage point high atop the vertical stabilizer. Evidently JetsGo's no-frills operating environment extended to their catering as well, and I watched with amusement as they attempted to lift cardboard cartons through the rear galley door using a belt loader.

Boarding did not commence until 10 minutes before scheduled departure time, meaning that a delay was virtually assured. In the interest of frugality, the same agents who were working checkin now relocated to the gate area. Boarding was somewhat organized thanks to the assigned seating and I wandered down the jetway at the end of the process.

The interior of the aircraft was decorated along the same lines as the exterior, with seats upholstered in a neutral blue color, but with the inevitable giant lime green smiley face emblazoned on the bulkhead in a subtle reminder that Big Brother was watching you. The cabin crew today consisted of 4 of Quebec's finest female specimens, smartly decked out in (you guessed it) lime green shirts and black trousers/skirts. A somewhat professional look was provided by their black leather jackets, but those too were adorned by a button sporting the omnipresent lime green smiley face.

The doors soon closed and we pushed back as the Flight Attendants attempted to pantomime the safety demo in both French and Anglais. I tried to locate a safety card in my seat pocket to follow along, but unfortunately it appeared that it had either been pilfered by the previous occupant or dispensed with as a form of cost-cutting, so I was forced to borrow my seatmates. Formalities dispensed with, we headed to runway 23 and took off right behind an Air Canada 747 headed to Vancouver and the El Al 777 headed to Los Angeles with an announced flying time of a shade over 4 and a half hours.

Once airborne, the service (sic) began. For the benefit of passengers whose appetites had not already been ruined by the color scheme, a menu card was provided in the seat pocket that listed a range of epicuniary delicacies conveniently listed below yet another nauseating lime green smiley face. I decided to splurge and purchased BOTH a Coke AND a Baguette, noting to my disappointment that my loonie only bought me a plastic cupful rather than the entire can. The Baguette was actually pretty decent and fresh, and well worth its price tag of $4. Interestingly, the entire service was conducted from 757 surplus galley carts emblazoned with the logo of Michel LeBlanc's last foray into the airline business - Royal Airlines.

As we climbed out over Western Ontario, the inflight entertainment began. This consisted of passengers getting sick of halfheartedly leafing through their reading material and striking up a conversation with their seatmates instead. The gentleman seated beside me was a realtor from Vancouver Island who was a decent enough guy, except that his personality was totally devoid of any interesting traits, a handicap that I am sure has driven many of his conversations to an early grave over the years. My token effort at conversation exhausted, I alternated my attention between the scenery and my magazine and chatted with my friend. We discussed the state of the industry for about an hour, but I eventually tired of the scathing glare from the lime green smiley face upon the bulkhead everytime I said something good about Air Canada.

The last hour of the flight was by far the most picturesque, with splendid views of the Cascades followed by a loop over Vancouver Island as we descended. The crew's unfamiliarity with the aircraft showed on short finals to 08L as we came in really fast and bounced twice before finally settling down on the runway after 4h51m of flying time. I won't swear to it, but I think the lime green smiley face on the bulkhead actually scowled for a brief instant.

We taxied halfway around the airport, passing the Air Canada 747 that had departed Toronto immediately ahead of us but had arrived well in advance and finally pulled into one of WestJet's gates at the absolute ass-end of concourse B. Unfortunately, our pilot had accidently taxied the aircraft too far forward and the jetbridge would not align with the door despite much manuevering. We waited another 10 minutes while the WestJet rampers found a pushback tug and moved us back the requisite few feet. Of course, we were now a good hour behind our scheduled arrival, meaning that I had the grand total of negative five minutes to checkin for my return flight. Alas, the agents meeting the flight were WestJet employees with no clue about JetsGo checkin, forcing me to sprint all the way to the checkin area at the main terminal.

I was supposed to meet up with another friend during my brief layover, but fortunately she was also running late, so we established telephonic contact and agreed to take a raincheck. I then set about trying to locate the JetsGo checkin desks. Inevitably, as would be expected for a carrier serving 5 destinations, all in Canada, this was located in the International terminal. The checkin procedure was a joke, with the agent ticking my name off a list and handing me a blank boarding pass with the seat number 20B scribbled on it in crayon.

The lines at security were somewhat lengthy by the time I got back there, leading me to momentarily worry that the flight might leave without me. I quickly reminded myself that this airline was hardly a paradigm of efficiency and the anxiety passed quicker than you could say RootsAir. The security stooge at the front of the line would not let me through without an AIF receipt, so I spent another 5 minutes arguing with him that a same-day connection did not require payment of the fee. A supervisor was summoned who agreed with me and I finally slithered through security and set off for the gate a good 30 minutes later than the scheduled departure time.

Arriving at the gate, I observed that the flight had not even begun boarding, so I grabbed a coke from a nearby vendor and sat back to take in my surroundings. As I watched, an aging ex-Piedmont 732 operated by Air North arrived from Whitehorse and discharged its human cargo. Other flights on the arrivals board listed stations with names like Sandspit, Smithers and Dawson's Creek (wasn't that a WB show???). Finally, around 1pm (for an 1155am departure), we were marshaled back upon the plane and I headed to my seat located right beside the rear galley of the aircraft.

As I settled down, I overheard two of the Flight Attendants behind me chatting in French, which they didn't realize that I understood. In brief, they were trying to figure out why I was flying right back to Toronto with no luggage. One theory was that I was a Transportation Canada inspector, but in the end they decided to call security aboard to check me out. A short Asian guy in the uniform of a private security company came aboard a few minutes later and asked me to accompany him to the galley where we were joined by the co-pilot and two of the Flight Attendants. I was asked to present ID (which really made no sense since there was obviously no way to corelate it to my crayon inscribed boarding pass) and explain the reason for my trip. I returned to my seat to note that the window was now occupied by a very elderly asian gentleman who spoke no English. Or French. Or anything other than the language he spoke, which alas we couldn't figure out what it was so we couldn't check if anyone else spoke it. I'm sure that the lime green smiley face on the bulkhead did, but he didn't volunteer.

We finally pushed back just shy of 130pm, were quickly airborne and set course for Toronto. The service (sic) was similar to that of the outbound flight, except that the baguettes were now stale. Since my seatmate spoke no English, I had no access to a window and I had already exhausted my reading material on the outbound sector, my only option to pass the time was to leaf through the propoganda package in the seat pocket. It explained the virtues of JetsGo's creed of "SIMPLiFLY" ("LE SIMPLiVOL" for the Francophones) which can be summed up as "Give 'em nothing and charge 'em for the rest". I then decided to nap, which I did for an hour, awakening about 90 minutes out of Toronto. I headed to the rear lav to freshen up, noting with amusement the stowage units at the rear that were emblazoned with large KOREAN AIR logos. How long before the lime green smiley face invades here as well?

On the way back to my seat, I was pulled aside by the Flight Attendants who began chatting about airline unions. Evidently the frugality of SIMPLiFLY extended towards employee relations as well. It's not exactly a positive sign to see your employees discussing unionization on day three of operations. Michel, pay note mon ami. There was nary a cloud in the sky as we circled the northern suburbs and touched down about 30 minutes behind schedule. I was grateful to finally disembark. 10 hrs aboard an MD83 is not something that a non-masochistic sane person should regularly schedule themselves for.

A couple weeks later, I needed to head back to Vancouver at short notice. One trip on JetsGo had taught me that there was no way I could subject myself to another longhaul with them, so Air Canada won my business this time around. Unfortunately, there was no availability on the nonstops at the times I needed, but we came up with an itinerary that had me overnighting in Edmonton and heading to Vancouver on the first flight the next morning.

I was scheduled for the 230pm flight, but since my ride deposited me at Pearson early, I figured that I would try to standby for the noon flight instead. It was looking pretty full, but the agent put me on the standby list and told me to head to the gate and try my luck anyway. Security was a breeze again, and I arrived at gate 211 just as the inbound Airbus was arriving from Halifax.

The next 30 minutes were typical of the routine of a standby passenger trying to get on a full flight. You pace. You chew your nails. You glare at other folks in the gate area silently wishing them to drop dead so you can get their seat. You tense everytime the gate agent picks up the microphone for a PA announcement. Until finally the ceremonial calling of the names is upon you, and the lucky chosen few make their way to the podium amidst rapturous applause to collect their well-earned boarding passes. Thankfully, my name was one of those selected today, and I received my the appropriate document assigning me seat 14F.

Just as boarding was about to commence, the skies turned grey and a deluge began. Alas, due to the dangers involved with the lightning, all ramp work was suspended for 20 minutes until the shower passed, meaning that we were going to take a delay. During the delay, I noticed that a couple of official looking men in suits had walked up to the gate area and spoke with the agent at the counter, but didn't think much about it. Boarding finally began just around 1230pm and I headed to the podium as my row number was called. And then all hell broke loose....

I handed my boarding pass over to the agent who fed it to the scanner and welcomed me aboard. As I stepped onto the jetbridge, I heard one of the official looking guys in the suit yell "HALT!". I turned and saw that both of them had jumped up from their chairs in the waiting area and were running towards me, as were 3 uniformed officers from the Peel Regional Police, all with their holsters unsnapped and hands on their guns. One of the men in a suit ordered the agent to stop boarding, while the uniformed officers surrounded me and asked me to come with them.

I was escorted to a small room just to the side of the gate where I was quizzed by the Peel officers about my background and the reason for my trip. The official looking guys were also present, but neither of them said a word to me. I gave them the information that they requested, and the official looking guys disappeared for a minute along with the female Peel officer. In the meanwhile, I tried to find out from the other officers what was going on. Turns out that they were equally in the dark about it. They had simply received a message to assist CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) at gate 211. No more than 5 minutes later, the female officer returned saying that everything had checked out ok and that I was clear to proceed. She explained that they were on special alert because of the international summit in Alberta that week and apologized for the inconvenience. That's class. The two guys in suits simply faded away into the woodwork. The entire encounter took less than 10 minutes.

I headed back to the gate where boarding was still suspended and was allowed to proceed. Needless to say, some of the passengers who had witnessed this were very white faced, but the Peel officers did a great job explaining that everything was under control. I thanked them for their professionalism and headed onto the aircraft. Today's plane was C-GIUB, a six month old baby of the fleet. This being my first time aboard an A321, I was interested to see how it looked, but the interior simply reminded me of a 757. I located my seat and settled into the window beside an elderly couple from Quebec.

We were airborne quickly enough with an announced flying time of 3h45m. The crew came around soon afterward offering free headphones, so I relaxed with some light music and watched the airshow on the flip-down overhead screens. The airshow transitioned to a news magazine and then to the movie "Monsters, Inc" as the crew came around serving lunch. The meal today was a decent pasta featuring chicken, although the desert was a nasty concoction that reeked of molasses. The movie, which I had watched multiple times before but never tired of, was excellent as usual and the overall flight experience was very positive.

With about 30 minutes left in the flight, we began our descent over the Alberta prairies. A quick shower had left them freshly washed in the bright sunlight and I truly began to appreciate the vastness and natural beauty of Canada. I ran through the words of "Oh Canada" in my mind and significance of "The True North strong and free" finally came to me. We descended further and signs of civilization appeared more and more frequently until we touched down and taxied to the terminal.

My rental car was waiting and I was on the road quickly enough. The drive into town was pleasant and I was actually pretty impressed by the city. I checked in at the Sheraton Grande Edmonton and was assigned a pleasant corner room. Having just over an hour to kill before my dinner meeting, I decided to head out to the famous West Edmonton Mall. The friendly concierge provided directions and the traffic was minimal. I didn't have too much time to explore, but I did manage to pick up a pair of sunglasses (no PST in Alberta!). The mall itself was very impressive and absolutely HUGE. It puts even the Mall Of America in Minneappolis to shame for sheer size.

Back in my room, Sheraton had delivered turndown service which included a cute packet of M&Ms tied up with a ribbon and placed on my pillow. I stayed up for a couple hours watching the local news from across the border in Spokane and finally turned in for the night around 11pm. To my surprise, it was still sunlight outside, undoubtedly a result of our location at 54 degrees latitude North of the equator.

A 620am flight translated to a 4am wakeup call, so I stumbled bleary-eyed through a shower before checking out and hitting the road. The sun was already peeking out at this Godforsaken early hour, another subtle reminder of our Northerly latitude. As I drove south on Calgary Trail, the radio began playing Celine Dion. "Hush hush... a new day has come...." As the sun rose over the vast Alberta prairie, for a brief instant it seemed such an appropriate Canadian song. But then I snapped out of it. Good grief man, CELINE DION! I found Metallica on another channel and breathed a sigh of relief, secure in my masculinity for another day.

Rental car return went smoothly and I arrived at the terminal around 540am. The lines at the domestic and transborder areas were horrendous, but thankfully the Calgary and Vancouver flights had a seperate counter by the security checkpoint. I tried using the kiosk to checkin, but unfortunately there had been a snafu with my reservation the previous day when listing me for standby and the agent had to deal with it manually. By the time this was done, it was past 6am and I was getting a bit concerned. I cleared security after a brief wait, but no problems, and sprinted down the concourse to my gate where the agent was just about to close the door.

I raced aboard the deserted C-FTJP panting heavily and settled myself into an empty row near the rear. Flying time on this short segment was a very brief 22 minutes, but the crew managed to do an entire newspaper service and a drink service. We touched down in Calgary ahead of schedule and taxied to the terminal, passing a number of VIP aircraft along the way that were in town for the summit. Notable among them were South African President Thabo Mbeki's business jet and the twin Boeing 747-47Cs of the Japan Air Self-Defence Force that would transport Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Tokyo in time for the World Cup Soccer finals.

I had just under an hour to kill in Calgary, so I headed to the food court in the main terminal to grab some breakfast. Alas, I failed to consider that the line at security might grow exponentially while I was eating. I returned to find that it snaked its way almost all the way to the domestic checkin area. Needless to say, I sweated bullets as I slowly made my way through the checkpoint and then sprinted to the gate, again the last passenger aboard.

Our aircraft today was C-GCPQ, a 1980 vintage ex-Canadian aircraft. I felt a twinge of nostalgia as I stepped aboard to see the bulkhead saying "Canadi>n Business". This flight was also pretty empty, so I wandered to the rear and plonked myself down in one of the last rows. As we taxied out, I dozed off, awakening only when the sweet flight attendant informed me that we were landing soon. I was impressed to note that while I had been asleep, she had draped a blanket over me and raised the armrest so I could have more space. I headed to the lav for a quick freshen-up, returning to find that she had saved me a cup of orange juice from the drink service in case I wanted something before we arrived.

Vancouver was very overcast, obscuring all view of the island as we made our approach and touched down on 08L again. I exited into the terminal and headed straight to the Airporter counter where I purchased a roundtrip to downtown. The bus arrived minutes later and the drive into town was quick and painless. After a brief connection at the Marriott to a smaller bus, I was deposited at the Westin Grand right around 10am.

The Westin Grand Vancouver is a wonderful all-suites hotel located at the intersection of Homer and Robson, an excellent location within walking distance of pretty much everywhere except Stanley Park. I had called earlier to arrange an early check-in and the front desk staff were extremely friendly and courteous as they gave me the keys to my corner suite.

The suite consisted of a bedroom with a King size "Heavenly Bed", a living room furnished with a small dining table, couch and chairs; a mini-kitchen with microwave, dishwasher, fridge, dishes and silverware and of course, a nice large bathroom with seperate oversized tub and "Heavenly Shower". The living room had full-length glass windows that provided a panoramic view of the Harbor and the mountains beyond. Extremely cozy and definitely a hotel I'd love to come back to next time in Vancouver.

I took a quick nap and then headed out for my lunch meeting. After lunch, I wandered through GasTown and ChinaTown, noting with interest the many similarities to San Francisco. I picked up some fresh BBQ Pork along with some stuffed buns from there and headed back to the hotel just as the heavens opened. The evening was spent watching TV quietly and sipping on some drinks from the overpriced minibar. It beats getting wet in the rain, plus I earn valuable Starpoints!

My original itinerary had me leaving Vancouver around noon and connecting through Calgary, but I decided to try my luck and standby for this nonstop instead. The Westin was gracious enough to grant me a late checkout, and I spent an enjoyable morning exploring more of Vancouver before grabbing a Shawarma for lunch. I checked out around 2pm and hopped on the Airporter, arriving back at the airport just after 3pm. Checkin was smooth enough and the agent was able to confirm me on the alternate flight since it was wide open. He also informed me that the aircraft would be ship 904, C-FYLD in the STAR Alliance livery, due inbound from Hong Kong at 345pm.

With just over 2 hours to kill, I headed to the bookstore and browsed for a while before proceeding to the C concourse security checkpoint. I purchased my AIF ticket from the machine and security had no hiccups. Walking down towards gate C37, my heart sank as I saw a Maple Leaf on the tail of the parked aircraft, rather than the expected Star. I turned the corner and the heart sank even further to see just a single Trent on the wing rather than the pair of hairdryers.. oops CFM56s. Alas, Air Canada had substituted an A330 in lieu of out scheduled plane due to late arrival of the aircraft from Asia.

My date with destiny cruelly shattered, I retired to a corner and sulked for a while with a Venti Chocolate Brownie Frappucino as my comfort food. Interestingly enough, I spotted a vintage Lufthansa 747-200 D-ABYX taki out for departure. I thought they had retired all of those? I snapped out of my reverie as boarding was called and wandered aboard C-GFAJ towards the tail end of the process. My seat today was 31K, the exit row window and I settled down next to a very sleepy Asian student who had just come in from Hong Kong.

Our taxi out to the threshold of runway 26L seemed to take forever, but we had a great view of Singapore Airlines' 777 coming in from Seoul as we headed out. I began chatting with the Flight Attendant on the jumpseat across from me and found out that this was another ex-Canadi>n crew. We were finally airborne just after 630pm and our 4h flight time meant that we would be arriving into Pearson right around 130am.

As we headed East into the darkness of the prairie night, we were served dinner. The entree was a very tasty grilled chicken breast with potatoes and vegetable, accompanied by a strawberry flavored dessert. During the service, the movie "High Crimes" with Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman was shown on the overhead screens. Decent movie, but nothing to write home about. Meal and movie complete, I headed to the rear galley to chat with the crew. We had a very enjoyable and frank discussion about a number of issues facing the industy ranging from the AC-CP seniority integration, the merits of multiple brands such as Tango and Zip, the new fixed-fee relationship between Air Canada and Jazz, etc...

Finally, around 1am EST, we began our descent into Pearson and I returned to my seat. The cabin was completely dark, so the lights of the city stood out like diamonds twinkling on a bed of soot. We touched down smoothly and taxied to a deserted Terminal 2. I had reserved a room at the Airport Hilton in anticipation of a late night arrival, and I headed off to the shuttle stop. I was joined a few minutes later by a young F28 First Officer for AC Jazz who had just come in from Saskatoon and we struck up a conversation.

At one point, the subject turned towards the A330 and he mentioned that he had never flown aboard a widebody. I was stunned. What about nonrev benefits? Don't you get to fly to Europe for free in Business Class? He proceeded to explain that he was married with a new baby, and commuted to a Toronto base from his home in Winnipeg. After all the taxes and charges on non-rev travelers with his seniority, he simply couldn't afford to take the family on a vacation, let alone international on a widebody. I stayed silent, but was reminded yet again that for every high-profile pilot that takes home $300/hr for working 2 weeks a month with weekends in the European capitals, there are dozens of others like him who work their tails off for low wages and terrible hours. To them, a good trip is the 18hr layover in Sault Ste. Marie. And when they stumble home at 3am after 2 weeks of shuttling people between every remote city in Western Ontario that you haven't even heard of, they realize that they missed their baby's first words. That's the true life of airline crew, not the glittering champagne and caviar image that most people love to portray.

My shuttle for the Hilton arrived and the smartly attired driver hopped out, offering to help me with my luggage. As he stowed it in the back, another van pulled up, this one for a generic airport inn. My new friend turned towards me and took my leave, hefting his own flightbag into the back seat as the driver impatiently drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, no doubt eager to return to whatever TV show had been interrupted to make this pickup. As he folded his jacket over his sleeve and took off his uniform cap, for a brief moment I felt as if I saw a twinge of envy in his eyes. But it soon faded, replaced by a pride in his job and his uniform. He shook my hand firmly, thanked me for choosing Air Canada and we set off in our respective vans.

The front desk at the Hilton was being manned by a trainee, but she did an excellent job of checking me in smoothly and giving me coupons for breakfast as well as for cocktails at the now closed bar. I trotted up to my room, kicked off my shoes, grabbed a beer from the minibar and walked over to my window. I had a great view of the tarmac and an Air Canada facility which sported a huge neon Maple Leaf shining out through the darkness, a visible symbol of Canadiana for everyone to see. I smiled again. The True North was indeed strong and free. Home       Trip Reports Index       Whine And Cheez Index       Discussion Forums

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