Tara Wheeler said she could make out Whitehorse’s city lights when, suddenly, the Air Canada plane began pulling up.
Up until then, the Carmacks resident said her return from a vacation in Las Vegas had been going smoothly, and she had no problems making her connection in Vancouver the night of Dec. 16.
The plane looped around Whitehorse before the pilot came over the intercom.
“He said, ‘Uh, so, we’re going to Anchorage,’” Wheeler recalled in an interview Dec. 19.
That was the beginning of how a normally two-and-a-half hour journey turned into a two-day odyssey for 88 passengers, which, besides the Alaska detour, also featured a return to Vancouver.
The flight didn’t touch down in the Yukon until Dec. 18
In an emailed statement, the airline said “weather limits” in Whitehorse on Dec. 16 and 17 prevented it from landing.
“Weather forecasts are reviewed prior to departing (Vancouver), and if ceiling limits are marginal but forecast to improve, we plan for sufficient fuel to hold and see if the weather limits improve to support safe landing per Air Canada’s operating procedures,” the email says.
“If ceiling limits do not permit safe landing per Air Canada’s approved processes, flights will divert or return to (Vancouver).”
The email adds that diversions are “very rare, and diversions that result in an overnight are even rarer.”
Air Canada did not respond to questions from the News on its minimum ceiling for landing in Whitehorse, its aircrafts’ landing-assistance equipment and whether passengers would be receiving compensation.
Wheeler said while she’s glad Air Canada erred on the side of safety, she thinks the airline should have given passengers more information throughout the situation.
In Anchorage, airport staff, not Air Canada, told them they would be getting on a shuttle bus to a hotel, Wheeler said. There was also no information on when their next flight would be.
The flight ended up leaving from Anchorage for Whitehorse around 3:45 p.m. Dec. 17 but diverted back to Vancouver.
Wheeler said Air Canada staff told passengers they’d be emailed new flight information, but she hadn’t received anything by the time she woke up on Dec. 18.
She booked an Air North flight instead.
“I couldn’t risk it,” she said.
“Air Canada has your information because they send you flight updates, so for them not to send us information through the app or through emails or texts was ridiculous.”
The airline also didn’t provide an explanation on why it couldn’t land in Whitehorse; Wheeler said she found out when, on the flight to Anchorage, a pilot came to speak with a man sitting in front of her who was “getting a little angry.”
The man, according to Wheeler, said an Air North flight had landed without issue. The pilot explained Air North has a “certain GPS system” on it planes that Air Canada doesn’t.
In a statement posted to Air North’s website Dec. 18, president Joseph Sparling said the airline has “invested in aircraft and aircraft equipment that allow us to do the best job possible at the airports we fly to and from most frequently.”
The statement doesn’t say what the equipment is, but does says the airline can land in Whitehorse with cloud ceilings as low as 200 feet if approaching from the south, and 388 feet from the north. Aircraft without the “required equipment installed,” though, need almost double that ceiling if landing from the north.
Wheeler said it was frustrating to know Air Canada’s planes don’t have that equipment.
“I’d rather be inconvenienced and alive, but I think they need to upgrade their planes to (be able to) land in winter conditions,” she said.
“… We live in Canada. It’s winter here a lot.”
Greg Ducharme, the station manager for Whitehorse radio station Life 100.7, was on the other end of the situation. He’d flown in New Brunswick musician Ted Lynch for a series of shows earlier this month, and Lynch was set to fly home Dec. 17 beginning with a 5:50 a.m. flight to Vancouver.
That flight was cancelled and Air Canada staff at the airport were “uncooperative” when it came to rebooking, Ducharme said, giving him a toll-free number to call instead.
After three hours on hold, Ducharme said Air Canada put Lynch on a flight leaving Dec. 18, but that got cancelled too. He ended up buying Lynch an Air North flight.
Like Wheeler, Ducharme said Air Canada staff told him Air North can land in Whitehorse when Air Canada can’t because Air North has “better instrumentation,” something that left him incredulous.
“Air North has like, one per cent of the capital revenue that Air Canada does and (if) they can afford to put the proper equipment to land their planes in Whitehorse, I think Air Canada can do it too,” he said.
“… If you’re going to do service to a northern location, you’ve got to be able to service it with the right equipment, don’t you think?”
Compounding his frustration, he said, was Air Canada’s “absolute lack of customer service.”
“They could have just been helpful,” he said.
In its email, Air Canada says it appreciates “how important it is for people to get to their destinations.”
“Our focus is on ensuring everyone is able to travel as soon as possible.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org