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Responsibility and Accountability

These are terms that get bandied about frequently these days, but their actual meaning has almost become lost through our tendency to treat them as if they were interchangeable synonyms.

I like to understand responsibility as both a management and social contract; we can hold another person to account for actions, a process, or a result, and that is the most fundamental of  building blocks for all human organisations.  It is also a basic component of all relationships, because we form mutual agreements with other people and making or breaking one’s commitments is how others can gauge our reliability.  As we keep our agreements consistently, others develop trust in us, and develop a measure of confidence in our abilities.  Accountability is external to an individual; their personal feelings on the validity of the onus are largely irrelevant.

Accountability, on the other hand, is best understood as one’s own feeling of ownership.  The tasks, roles, and outcomes that you feel are your duty to look after.  And like all feelings it is transient, and can fluctuate from day to day.

It’s possible, of course, to be held responsible for things one doesn’t feel accountable for.  F-16 pilot Major Harry Schmidt, for example, was held responsible for the deaths of Canadian soldiers at Tarnak Farm after he mistook their training exercise for enemy fire and released a weapon on their position.  Major Schmidt subsequently fought a protracted but unsuccessful battle to save his military flying career and keep details of his reprimand under wraps.  Schmidt is, I am sure, deeply affected by the knowledge that he killed friendly comrades in arms; but his public actions tell us that perhaps he doesn’t think the sudden end of his military flying days are a logical and fitting consequence of his error.

Humans by their very nature are imperfect beings; we will all make at least one error (if not several) per calendar day.  If we are disciplined, focused and fortunate, they will be minor and inconsequential lapses which will not have any long-term negative impact.  If we are at times less fortunate, disciplined, and attentive—or some disastrous combination of all three—a serious error can result in major personal or professional consequences.  But our nature—not always rational—also means that we do not like to accept responsibility for our failures, and rationalising our own purported blamelessness is something every human being on the planet has some experience with.

Bruce Landsberg, writing for the AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation eJournal, notes that pilots for mass commercial air carriers generally take their responsibilities and accountabilities quite seriously, but even with that high degree of skill, experience and training there can be regrettable (and entirely avoidable) blunders.  Mr. Landsberg laments the lack of accountability (which I understand to be the sense of ownership of the problem), pointing out that even in such a demanding and highly-skilled fraternity, it can be tempting to spread the blame to systemic or procedural faults when the obvious proximate cause is the judgment of the guy or girl in charge.

The laptop lapse in the Airbus that over flew Minneapolis was irritating. A quote from a well-known captain in the NY Times: “Something in the system allowed these well-trained, experienced, well-meaning, well-intentioned pilots not to notice where they were, and we need to find out what the root causes are, he said. Simply to blame individual practitioners is wrong and it doesn’t solve the underlying issues or prevent it from happening.”

How is it the system’s fault when two professional pilots in a perfectly functioning aircraft manage to forget that they are flying eastbound at over 400 knots and should be landing soon? When do individual practitioners who are placed in position of absolute authority and there are two of them to be sure that they are looking out for each other, come to be accountable?

— Landsberg, Bruce.  “Not my Fault, Mon! AOPA ASF Blog, 19 May 2010.

These things should interest general aviation pilots as well, because we operate less complex aircraft and often lack a copilot (or second set of eyes) as backup, should we suffer a lapse in our own judgement while flying.  The safety of the flight thus depends on how well the “system” of us—the individual GA pilot—is operating.  On a bad day, it may lead to dangerous and potentially fatal consequences.

In light aircraft with largely single pilot operations, we don’t have as many opportunities to blame “the system “ except possibly ATC.  You ARE the system and when there is a systemic problem and it wasn’t a self-inflicted wound, please file an ASRS report. Even if it was your own doing – we can all learn from such incidents.

It’s said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and best wishes. Unlike felony law where intention does make a difference, gravity and Newtonian physics make no distinctions – it’s all about avoiding the edges of the airspace and other aircraft.

As Mr. Landsberg notes, one of the best things a pilot can do, after they have had a “what the hell was I thinking” moment, is to file an anonymous and consequence-free ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System) report on their own close-call incidents, so that other pilots can read the particulars and hopefully avoid being trapped in a fatal decision cycle.  Perversely, the ASRS reports get spit out as Word, Excel or CSV files, so they aren’t especially good to read at the NASA/FAA site, but the website 37,000 Feet does a serviceable job of rendering them in easily digestible web format.

Here’s one that all pilots (and heck, even ground-bound drivers) can relate to: a case of get-there-itis.  I’m sure everyone has driven into meteorological conditions where visibility is marginal at best, and the safest course of action would be to pull over and not continue; yet sometimes we press on nonetheless.  A Cessna Grand Caravan pilot with 3,300 hours under his belt was approaching the unlit Marsh Harbour Airport, Bahamas (MYAM) in fading twilight conditions.  He had to go around several times because he lost sight of the unlit runway, and eventually made a successful landing on his third attempt.  But as he later realised, because of the intense focus on getting the job done, he lost sight of the more important consideration—air safety.

At one time or another every human alive will have—if we are honest with ourselves—made decisions inconsistent with our own “best practices”,  personal values, or legal regulatory frameworks (the Highway Traffic Act, for example), and then thought better of it in a moment of sober second thought.  This is part of the burden of being a human being, imperfect by nature.  One practice we would all do well to adopt is to look first at the guy in the mirror, before we start trying to slough off blame on the people and systems around us.

RELATED: David Megginson of Land and Hold Short links to a truly astounding incident where a pilot who really ought to have known better tried to take off from Brantford, Ontario in his light twin (with an inoperative right engine) and failed to make adequate obstacle clearance.  Having an engine fail on takeoff is something that every pilot trains and prepares for, but knowing that an engine is INOP prior to starting your takeoff roll—and deciding to go anyway—is dispensing with caution perhaps a little too freely.

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Apples to apples

Mr. Bruce Lansberg (President of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation) writes at the AOPA ASF Blog, and decries recent calls for general aviation to adopt higher standards and a more rigorous regulatory regime akin to that of mass-market commercial carriers.

This is an area where one’s pilot rating will tend to determine how one views the issue; ATP-rated pilots will generally view greater rigour as no big deal and an essentially good idea, while non-ATP-rated folks are likely to view it as straining at gnats, where one will soon encounter the law of diminishing returns.

My own sense is that having GA pilots be subject to commercial-carrier-type regulation would be akin to having ordinary drivers have to conform to the mechanical, technical and certification regulations governing buses and commercial transport trucks.  It might in the end make the roads a little bit safer, but would the added inconvenience and expense be a worthwhile trade-off?

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve flown with very meticulous, by-the-book GA pilots who (for example) always check the weather forecasts; always perform a precisely detailed preflight and walk-around; always give passengers a detailed safety briefing including instructions for use of the ELT; always perform the placarded checklists at the appropriate points, and so on.  I’ve also flown with GA pilots who omitted one or two (or more) of those steps, and who I probably wouldn’t trust to take a car to the corner store.

I’ve only been in two situations where I felt a GA pilot endangered my life.  In both of those cases, I’m not sure additional regulation would have helped since they stemmed from an experienced pilot’s failure to recognise the increased risk arising from specific flight conditions.  Conditions which they are educated about and taught to avoid already!  One was a definite case of get-there-itis; a multiengine- and instrument-rated instructor pilot (who should have known better) continued flight into deteriorating winter weather conditions and a geographic locality (the middle of Lake Michigan) which provided no forced landing alternatives should an engine quit or otherwise force us down.  To make things worse, the freezing layer was so low we were down to a few hundred feet above the wavetops; if we had to ditch, we would barely have time to broadcast a position report before we got dunked in the freezing water.

Part of pilot training is giving the individual tools to make good judgments under a wide array of situations, but no educational method can guarantee a human will always be able to identify the relevant data points to arrive at the right conclusion.

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Not quite getting it

I enjoyed this Toronto Star opinion piece on Porter Airlines’ upcoming IPO because it sheds some light on how certain industry analysts think, and that in turn colours how certain journalists think.

“People aren’t as afraid of taking risk,” says Basili Alukos, an equity analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, who adds that there’s “appetite” for airline stocks, appetite being one of Mr. Porter’s favourite words.

Alukos notes the recent loft in the share prices of even some debt-laden U.S. legacy air carriers.

The story Deluce, a pilot and past-president of Canada 3000, will take to the street is the story of the still upstart airline stealing a march on the competition while keeping a lock on what is now called Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Well, nothing lasts forever, and Bob Deluce knows that. There will surely be other carriers on the island, and Deluce is a practical man. “Airline flying is a commodity,” sighs Alukos. “It’s driven by price. If there’s a new air carrier offering cheaper fares, people will be chomping at the bit.

If Alukos is right – and I do believe he is – brand loyalty will be weakened, eventually, by price war. Mr. Porter’s adorableness will only take him so far.

— Wells, Jennifer.  “Porter Airlines takes a flyer.” Toronto Star, 17 April 2010. [Emphasis mine]

That one sentence tells you right away that the analyst does not comprehend Porter’s business model.  Every airline is expensive to operate and generates relatively meagre profits, but almost all of them have refused to adapt their core processes to better reflect new realities of air travel.  Low-cost carriers (LCCs) are frequently cited as factor in driving down fares, and that is a valid point.  But LCCs alone do not explain air travel’s woes.  The bottom line is that air travel has become inconvenient, unpleasant and inappropriately priced relative to the true cost of operating an aircraft.

For example, a typical full-service airline will operate its aircraft to and from major hub airports, say from Pearson to LaGuardia, for example.  These are both busy, expensive and frequently congested airports.  The landing fees are expensive relative to smaller airports in the same metropolitan areas.  Many airlines fly into these large hubs, and with greater numbers of aircraft comes greater complexity and opportunities for delays.  A smaller airline such as Porter can avoid these potential hassles by choosing to fly into a less-congested airport (Newark, for example) near to the large hub.  This allows the smaller carrier the possibility of cheaper landing fees, better on-time performance, fewer delays, quicker embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, and so on.

Any airline could, in theory, switch hubs provided it negotiated appropriately with the relevant airport authority.  But most of the large airlines are locked into large, expensive airfields because that is where their partner airlines and connecting flights meet, or their maintenance facilities are located, and so on.  The genius of Porter lies in choosing airports which are close to the major cities they serve, but not as congested as the main international hubs.  Having to wait in the Customs line behind 1200 people that just got off a trio of arriving 747s can put a bit of a damper in your day.  There’s little chance of that happening when you fly into the airfields that Porter serves, and that’s a deliberate choice because they want better a better customer experience.

Which leads me to the next point: Porter’s animating philosophy is business class for everyone.  Or to be blunt, a more pleasant flying experience for everyone.  Even if the airline’s competitors slash their fares, they will have to match Porter’s convenience and superior customer experience.  The average Bay Street exec flying from Toronto to New York is not going to be wooed by a cheaper fare.  Let us say that Air Canada Jazz begins operating its Dash 8-100s from CYTZ as they did in former days.  The temptation for Jazz’s route structure will be to fly into a major international hub in New York where it can connect with Air Canada proper.  Even if Jazz slashed its fare to just above TTC bus fare, it would not destroy Porter’s market share.  Sure, a lot of people would give Jazz a shot, but they will soon realise that 1) the equipment is older and noisier, and 2) departure from YTZ might be faster, but extricating oneself from LaGuardia is still slow and painful due to large passenger volume.  Students and cheapskates will be wooed by cheap fares; the suits on Bay Street and downtown dwellers in general—arguably Porter’s primary audience—will not.  They will opt for a more pleasant and convenient experience even at a greater cost.

Any airline that hopes to eat Porter’s lunch will have to provide a similar level of service and convenience, and that won’t be easy unless they adopt a similar business model (which will, in turn, mitigate against their price being significantly lower).  Cheap fares are not the airline-killer; the real killer is cheap fares married to lousy product and great inconvenience.  That, unfortunately, describes the bulk of air carriers today.

RELATED: A Canadian Press report in the Star‘s business section gets it right.

Analyst Robert Kokonis of travel consultancy Air Trav Inc. said considering Porter’s stellar reputation, that figure is not out of the question.

He said the offering will generate a lot of excitement among investors because Porter offers a unique business model that focuses on customer service.

“It’s going to ignite a lot of passion and a lot of people to hop on board, so I wouldn’t doubt if this issue becomes oversubscribed,” he said.

“It’s a smart move to put your money into an airline that realizes you’ve got to pay attention not just to the cost line (by cutting costs), but realizes you’ve got to pay attention top line as well, by offering a great product, a great service.”

— “Porter plans IPO.” Canadian Press/Toronto Star, 16 April 2010.

Sort of sad that a “focus on customer service” is considered a unique selling point among airlines.  But maybe that’s all you need to know about why Porter’s successful, and other island airport carriers (such as Air Canada Jazz) were not.

Elinor Smith, the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”, 1911-2010

As with so many pioneering men and women of the Golden Age, we tend to learn of their extraordinary deeds only when they go to their final rest.

Ms. Elinor Smith had a rather remarkable career, and it is with no small shame I concede that I had not heard of her until today. She started her flying instruction at the tender age of ten, and Elinor’s instructor—one Clyde Pangborn, an aviator of some renown himself—had to tie blocks to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach them.

Among Ms. Elinor Smith’s many interesting exploits:

  • At age 15, three months after her first solo flight, she set a light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet.
  • In September of 1927—at the age of 16—she became the youngest US government licensed private pilot then on record.  (Today you can take the written test at 15, but must be 17 to be a licensed private pilot.)
  • On a dare, she flew a Waco 9 biplane under all four of New York City’s East River bridges in mid-October 1928.  To her credit, Elinor did study the local weather conditions, tidal variations and even the designs of the bridges themsevles before making the attempt.  The city of New York gave her an unofficial grounding for ten days, while mayor James J. Walker intervened with federal authorities to prevent any actual, official suspension.
  • In 1929, set the women’s endurance record (flying solo for 26½ hours), women’s speed record (190.8 mph, or 165.8 knots) and the women’s endurance record with aerial refueling (with Bobbi Trout), flying 42½ hours.
  • Broke the world altitude record by a mile in 1930, flying to 27,419 feet.
  • In May of 1930—not yet 19 years old—Elinor became the youngest pilot to receive an Airline Transport License (ATP).  In October of the same year, she was voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” by her licensed peers; Jimmy Doolittle was the “Best Male Pilot in America” that year.
  • Retired from flying for 20 years to raise children, started flying again in 1956 after the death of her husband.  Was given the opportunity to fly the T-33 Shooting Star and C-119 Flying Boxcar via membership in the Air Force Association.
  • In 2000, became the oldest person (89yrs) to successfully land the Space Shuttle simulator—after botching her first attempt.  I think we can cut her some slack for that.  At 89 I’d consider myself lucky if I could still pilot my fork to my mouth.

Elinor Smith passed away on March 19th, 2010.  I’m making a note to reserve her book at the library.

…Now the airlines and the military are finally letting down the bars to admit qualified young women, so this is a good time to recall the difficulties most women fliers encountered during our early struggles for recognition and employment.

Why did we persist in a business that offered so few financial rewards and took lives at such a cruel rate? It’s a question that had as many answers as there were pilots. In my case it was the daily challenge and the sheer beauty of flight that drew me back again and again. It was such a wonderful age to fly through. I was privileged to know all of those gallant pilots, both men and women, and gifted designers. Their efforts should never be forgotten nor their triumphs overlooked. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have participated and played a small part in it. “To most people, the sky is the limit; to Elinor the sky is home.”

— Smith, Elinor.  “Preface.” Aviatrix.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

PM Churchill flying BOAC Boeing 314 Berwick G-AGCA

Winston Churchill in the captain's seat aboard BOAC Boeing 314 flying-boat "Berwick" (civil registry G-AGCA), enroute from Virginia to Bermuda. January 16th, 1942. (Imperial War Museum, Catalog #H 16645.)

Churchill soon made friends with [BOAC Captain] John Kelly Rogers, “a man of high quality and experience.”  He entered the cockpit smoking his usual cigar, and Kelly Rogers waived the rules and let him continue, even allowing him to strike a match when it went out.  He tried the controls of the huge craft, as Kelly Rogers whispered into the co-pilot’s ear, ordering him to apply corrections only if it looked as if the plane was getting out of the Prime Minister’s control…

Churchill was allowed to do a couple of slightly banked turns, and was photographed by one of the official cameramen.  He talked about his own flying career which had begun in 1913 when he founded the Royal Naval Air Service, and compared the Boeing Clipper with the primitive aircraft he had known then.  When Kelly Rogers made radio contact with the [accompanying] Pan American planes, Churchill asked if he could speak to them, but the captain ruled that out as too much of a security risk…

After about four hours they arrived at Bermuda and Kelly Rogers offered a sightseeing flight around the islands.  The Prime Minister was summoned from his seat below and he and the Governor [of Bermuda, Lord Knollys] came on the flight deck to view the sights.  Then they landed inside Darrell’s Island, the main flying-boat station in Bermuda…

— Lavery, Brian.  “A Flying Hotel in the Fog.” Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.  94.

This is Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers, Berwick‘s commander for that flight (and the subsequent return flight from Bermuda to Britain).  Regular readers of this space may find him familiar as I have used his likeness here previously as an avatar—a deliberate choice, as the man was one of Imperial Airways’ most experienced and capable captains.

John Cecil Kelly-Rogers was born in 1905, in the seaside town of Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin.  At the age of 14, he joined the training ship HMS Conway—famed for its high-quality merchant marine graduates—and later became an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.  In 1927 he joined the RAF and flew “army cooperation” craft; a loose term describing those aircraft that served as observers, artillery directors and couriers.

Kelly-Rogers joined Imperial Airways (forerunner to BOAC) in 1935, and due to his good airmanship, experience and leadership, was frequently called upon for more hazardous and prestigious assignments.  In 1937 he flew the first Empire flying-boat service along the Nile to Kisumu on Lake Victoria.  He was in regular rotation as a captain on the lengthy Egypt-India-Australia route as well.  In 1939, he flew Imperial’s first transatlantic service to Canada and the United States.  Most famously, in 1940, Kelly-Rogers rescued the Empire flying-boat Corsair from the swamp in the Belgian Congo where it had lain stranded for 10 months.

Corsair had gotten off-course due to faulty maintenance with its direction-finding radio; it was forced to land in a swampy, brackish river to avoid fuel exhaustion and had struck a rock and holed itself in the process.  Captain Edward Samson Alcock—brother of famed Sir John William Alcock, who had made the world’s first successful transatlantic crossing—managed to beach Corsair before she flooded and sank.  The flying-boat had subsequently been repaired in an Herculean effort that saw the creation of a small town full of engineers and hired African labour—nicknamed Corsairville, naturally.  Regrettably Alcock wrecked it again on another rock, in an abortive attempt to get it airborne on the Dangu River’s narrow, short waterway, and Corsair was forced to spend another few months undergoing a second repair.  For the second attempt, the river was dammed to create a lake, and ace pilot Kelly-Rogers was the man that finally got it airborne and back to Britain.

Following the war, Kelly-Rogers returned to his native Ireland and became a pilot for Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus.  He subsequently became a deputy general manager (and later, director) of the airline.  In 1969 he also became the curator of an Irish aviation museum hosted at Dublin Airport.  Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge that museum no longer exists and the disposition of its artifacts is unknown.  One has to presume as well that by the present date, J.C. Kelly-Rogers is dead, although I can find no notice of his passing.

RELATED: Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers gives his own impressions of the Prime Minister (and the flight from Bermuda to Britain) in the February 2, 1942 edition of LIFE magazine.

Airlines are expensive; why isn’t airfare?

Your correspondent has opined before in this space that air fares need to go up drastically in order for airlines to survive as an industry. I have tended (perhaps unfairly) to place the blame on the airlines—and their reluctance to hazard market share by making ticket prices reflect the actual costs of operating their flights.  We’ve seen what a similar denial of reality can produce—witness the insurance industry’s artificially low premiums before (and panicky soaring rates after) September 11th, 2001, for example.

Chris Manno—retired Air Force pilot, current American Airlines captain, and proprietor of the usually funny and always interesting JetHead blog—draws the linkages between five major factors that are conspiring to ruin air travel for all of us.  Here is Conspirator #2:

2. Alfred E. Kahn. Known as “The Father of Airline De-Regulation,” economist Alfred E. Kahn was Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. His blueprint for airline de-regulation was based on a flawed economic model, and was as misguided as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s assurance to Lyndon Johnson that the Viet Nam war would be short and wouldn’t affect inflation. Kahn proposed complete de-regulation of airline routes and fares, positing that the marketplace forces would drive down ticket prices and provide the American public with cheap and plentiful airline seats.

What he failed to consider in his economic model is the fact that not only is the product—an airline seat—not inexpensive to produce, it is also linked to energy costs which are both volatile and unpredictable. “Cheap airfares” for the public are incredibly expensive to produce, forcing in the progressive “unbundling” of the airline product: now passengers must pay for each component of the flight—a checked bag, food, beverage, amenities like a pillow or a hard-copy ticket—and the revenue still only marginally covers the price of the product, with the airline industry losing billions nonetheless. Consumers insisted on paying less for an airline ticket, so now they can cough up for food and drink at airport prices between flights. Everything must yield revenue or there is no airline, and nothing with revenue potential on board can be simply given away.

— Manno, Chris.  “The Big 5 Conspire To Ruin Your Air Travel.” JetHead, 18 March 2010.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.  You’ll laugh but you’ll also cry, because things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better.

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Passengers behaving badly: Hon. Helena Guergis, PC, MP

Helen Guergis (right), Minister of state for Status of Women, stands beside Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources, as they take part in a Walk For The Cure event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 17, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

On February 19th, junior minister Helena Guergis lost her cool after she arrived late for her flight, and was directed through the usual gamut of security screenings.  She proceeded to throw a tantrum, treating security screeners and airline personnel in an abrasive manner that would have had her barred from the flight, if she were anything other than a Minister of the Crown.  The details were unveiled in an anonymous fax sent to Prince Edward Island MP Wayne Easter (Liberal-Malpeque).

(I apologise in advance for quoting its entirety, but the letter ought to be read to be fully grasped.  No media account I have seen thus far manages to convey all of the details as soberly as the original author does.)

On February 19th at the Charlottetown Airport, Air Canada Jazz staff was informed via telephone that a certain “V.I.P.” would be late arriving for Air Canada Flight #7677 to Montreal.  The flight was scheduled to be in the air at 1725hrs with a flight load of thirty two passengers.

At 1720 hrs thirty of the thirty two passengers had already boarded the plane.  The two remaining passengers, Conservative MP and Minister of State for the Status of Women Hon. Helena Guergis and her aide Emily Goucher were at the Air Canada counter being so difficult and rude to Air Canada representative Alan Bagley that he almost refused to allow them to board to spite their “V.I.P.” status.  They berated him loudly and treated him in a most condescending manner after he told them some of their excessive bags were too large to be carry-on and should be checked.  At one point the Hon. Helena Guergis told Mr. Bagley that she “….knew Ron McKinley”. Apparently she wasn’t aware that as Minister of Transportation Mr. McKinley was not in charge of carry-on baggage, more’s the pity.

At 1720 hrs. inside the preboard screening area, five minutes before the time when the flight was scheduled to be in the air, Air Canada representative Sonja MacMillan paged both Hon. Helena Guergis and Ms. Goucher over the P.A. and after having waited considerably for them already, proceeded to the aircraft with her paperwork.

At 1725 hrs., flight time, Hon. Helena Guergis and Ms. Goucher started into the preboard area to be screened by the security staff.  When asked to remove her overcoat she compiled, but refused to remove her blazer, and when informed that her footwear might set off the walk through metal detector, she refused to remove them as well.  After proceeding through the metal detector, she alarmed it and was screened by Screening Officer Melissa Murnaghan.  She was asked to sit down and remove her footwear at this point due to the fact that they had caused the alarm.  At this point the Hon. Helena Guergis took a seat and huffily started to remove her footwear, upon their removal she slammed her boots into the bin provided by Ms. Murnaghan and then the Minister of State for the Status of Women said to Ms. Murnaghan, a single mother working to support herself and her son, “Happy Fucking Birthday to me!  I guess I’m stuck on this hell hole!”  Ms. Murnaghan, in a credit to her professionalism, did not reply to this comment, nor did the other screening staff on duty; Donald Wood, John Birt, Andrew MacEwan, Wanda Chinery, or Andrew Williams.  Ms. Murnaghan then put the footwear through the X-ray machine.

As the footwear cleared the X-ray conveyor, Hon. Helena Guergis then shouted at her aide Ms. Goucher to “Get those for me! I’m not walking around here in sock feet!.”

Having then cleared mandatory security screening without further incident, and having been handed her boots by her personal servant Ms. Goucher, Hon. Helena Guergis then attempted to force open the locked door that separates the preboard seating area from the apron, upon which Air Canada flight #7677 continued to wait.  Screening Officer MacEwan, closest to her, informed her that the door was indeed locked and that she would have to wait for the Air Canada representative (Sonja MacMillan) to return.  Hon. Helena Guergis then shouted across preboard to Mr. MacEwan “Well, can’t you call her or something!?”  Mr. MacEwan replied that no, he had no way of contacting the Air Canada representative while she was airside and that she would have to wait.  He also told her that passengers were normally requested to be at the airport at least two hours before flight time.  The Hon. Helena Guergis then shouted back across preboard to Mr. MacEwan “I don’t need to be lectured about flight time by you! I’ve been down here working my ass off for you people.”  Taken aback by this unnecessarily venomous response, Mr. MacEwan decided to end the conversation on his part.

Hon. Helena Guergis and her aide Ms. Goucher then decided that the best course of action would be to go to the eastern end of the preboard screening area and attempt to get Ms. MacMillan’s attention by screaming and hammering on the sound proof tinted glass that separates preboard from airside.

At this point, Sonja MacMillan returned from the plane, and being unaware of the commotion caused by the Hon. Helena Guergis and her aide Ms. Goucher, she processed them without further incident and allowed them to board Air Canada Flight #7677 to Montreal.  As they were being processed and allowed to board, Air Canada representative Alan Bagley entered preboard to see what the yelling he had heard way out at the counter was about.  Screening Officer Andrew Williams, during a security sweep of preboard, discovered two passports and tickets belonging to Ms. Goucher and Hon. Helena Guergis and gave them to Mr. Bagley who then returned them to Ms. Goucher and the Hon. Helena Guergis as they were finally headed towards their flight.

It is most unlikely anyone involved in this incident will be able to give statements or interviews “on the record”.

Due to the likely termination of current employment; Anonymous

— Anonymous letter to MP Wayne Easter.  Attached to report by O’Malley, Kady. “Helena Guergis’s Adventures on Prince Edward Island.” CBC News, 25 February 2010.

Mrs. Guergis has since realised what poison this is for her reputation, and apologised to Air Canada staff in particular and the people of PEI in general.  Take note that in her apology and public statements, she has not contested the details of the account.  Opposition MPs and assorted outraged citizens are calling upon Mrs. Guergis to resign, while the Prime Minister has said that he is satisfied with her apology, and that ends the matter.  Knowing the Prime Minister, however, I am sure the matter is not ended; he remembers it when people fail spectacularly—hello, Maxime Bernier!  No doubt the PM will recall this incident at the next Cabinet shuffle, and out will go Mrs. Guergis.

I’m not particularly upset over her behaviour unbecoming a minister, as it is a role with almost no substance whatsoever.  Before being granted the “Minister” nomenclature, it was known as Secretary of State (Status of Women), and the office-holder was in essence a glorified Parliamentary Secretary—neither sitting in Cabinet nor being a member of the Cabinet’s real centre of gravity, the far more influential Treasury Board.  This so-called “junior minister” portfolio carries with it the whopping bureaucracy of three staff, and no executive authority beyond that of a normal MP.  And as we have seen, it doesn’t even exempt one from having to go through the same meaningless security theatre as the plebs.

I understand that people will lose their cool every now and then; this is human nature.  But neither do I condone an absence of consequences.  If the Hon. Helena Guergis were an ordinary citizen, she would have been bounced from her flight, possibly detained by airport security, and (if they had any sense at all) informed by Air Canada that her business was no longer welcome, and they would be refusing any subsequent bookings by her.  Alas, the time for the first has passed, although there may still be time to file petty charges and have the airline declare her persona non grata.

If I were the Prime Minister, however, I would make it clear that Mrs. Guergis would indeed keep her job, but since she could not be relied upon to conduct herself appropriately at an airport, she must be relieved of the burden of going through airport security screening.  For the remainder of the government’s term of office, therefore, she would be placed on Transport Canada’s Specified Persons List and prohibited from setting foot aboard any kind of aircraft, civil or military.  In order to travel to her engagements, Mrs. Guergis could enjoy the leisurely pace of the railroad or—to go where the rails do not—Greyhound bus.

I’m sure my approval rating would skyrocket overnight.

But alas, I cannot think of any Prime Minister of the Dominion who would ever have the guts to do it.

Flight Students, 1939

A group of Dave Raub's female flight students posed around a Stinson Reliant biplane, summer 1939. Left to right: (standing) Jean Adams Cook (airport manager), Anne Beach, Grace Larkin Coffin, Edith Jenney, Kathryn Cady (married Dave Raub), Winifred Williams; (seated) Linda Loring, Doris Gilman. (Nantucket Historical Assocation, image number PH23-10) Flickr: Flight Students, 1939, originally uploaded by nha.library.

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