How many times have you seen TV news reports of people stranded in airports, and thought, “Thank God that’s not me?” Usually the flight cancellations are attributed to the weather. In our case it was a sick-in by the workers who refuel the planes at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

We had attended the 25th annual meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, held June 28-July 2 at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. On the morning of Friday July 3 we drove to Halifax (90 km), returned the Chevy to Avis, and presented our pre-printed boarding passes to an Air Canada agent. She said that our flight to Toronto had been delayed 20 minutes—which meant we’d have exactly an hour to make the connecting flight to San Francisco. It was do-able, she said, and our plane leaving Toronto might take off a little late because of “fueling issues.”

On the flight from Halifax, also heading for the Bay Area, were Constance Finley, a producer of medicinal cannabis extracts, and her lab director, Haley Poole. As our plane started descending, a flight attendant informed the four of us that we had been bumped off the 4:30 to SFO because Air Canada assumed we couldn’t make it on time.  They’d booked us on a flight the next morning and we would be put up at a hotel.

We decided to sprint anyway and try to catch the 4:30 as per our tickets. The flight attendant disapproved, and said we hadn’t left enough time between landing in Toronto and taking off for SF. I said that an hour and 20 minutes seemed adequate, and how come Air Canada lists that connection as an option on its website, and accepted our payment? Constance was getting spicey, too.

We sprinted to no avail. The flight had been canceled and we were told to report to Air Canada’s “Connections window,” which meant a long retracing of our steps. (The airport is vast, and Air Canada dominates.)

As we were wending our way slowly forward on the Connections window line, Constance got the attention of a competent manager and explained that she had a serious autoimmune disorder that is only held in check by her medicine, which was in her bag ticketed for San Francisco. The manager said she would get Constance on a plane ASAP, and since we were in her entourage, we were put on the 8:55 p.m. flight and felt relatively lucky.

Returning US citizens go through customs in Toronto. (“This part of the airport is technically the United States.,” it was explained by an attendant.)

It took 20 minutes just to get on line for Customs. Three days earlier the airport had installed a new system in preparation for the Pan American games. You create a second boarding pass by inserting your passport into a computer/printer, which produces a piece of slick paper with toxic ink that you leave with the guard at the start of the Customs line.

Then you inch your way “forward” for another hour in a roped-off, zig-zag configuration that enables more than 100 people (schlepping carry-on bags) to cram into a space of about 15 square yards. To the left and right of our slowly undulating human square were two single-file lines, one for passengers who might miss their flights, one for customers who had paid for the privilege of line avoidance.

Although there were booths for about 20 Customs agents, only three were on duty reviewing documents. At one point your correspondent started addressing the huddled masses: “Genuflect to the state, everybody! Genuflect to the state! Don’t you feel a lot safer now? Let’s all genuflect to the state.” People averted their eyes except for one big, curly-haired Caucasian with an Asian wife and two beautiful kids. He grinned and nodded enthusiastically. Better fewer but better, right?

At last we made it to a Customs agent. In response to his questions I said that I’m a journalist. I’d been covering a scientific conference. The International Cannabinoid Research Society is made up of scientists studying why marijuana works as medicine. The agent said his wife was interested in that subject. I gave him a preview edition of the next O’Shaughnessy’s and some extra copies in case his wife had any friends who were interested.

Around 9:15 we boarded the 8:55 plane and proceeded to wait another hour in our seats. There was no air circulating because, as the apologetic steward said, “it hasn’t been delivered yet.” Around 10 pm he announced that the flight had been canceled and everybody had to get off.

We had to clear customs again (re-entering Canada, technically, not a long process), then wait for our bags to be unloaded from the plane. And wait. And wait… We’d been watching the carousel go round for about an hour when I checked the Air Canada website on my laptop and realized that we wouldn’t get a flight out the next day unless we left the baggage claim area immediately and hastened to the Connections window to re-book. But you can’t leave without your co-ticket-holder and the missus didn’t want to give up the hope of her bag emerging. I almost had to drag her. Good thing, too, because while we were re-booking (Connections was like a half mile away) other bedraggled strandees began getting on line behind us. Their bags had finally arrived. There were about 60 people on line by the time we got ticketed to fly out the next day at 10:15 a.m. —business class seats!— and given a voucher for a hotel. Our bags, we were told, would “automatically” be put on our plane.

“How could this happen?” my friend Brent Zettl had asked back in Halifax when we first got wind of a delay in Toronto. (He was carrying a securely packed box of live lobsters intended for dinner in Saskatchewan.)

I got the answer to his question from a ticket agent at Pearson airport: Air Canada had reneged on its contract with Consolidated Aviation Fueling, whose employees —the people who refuel the planes— are members of the International Association of  Machinists and Aerospace Workers.  The airline had cut a deal with a company that will provide cheaper, non-union labor. Some 300 Consolidated refuelers had been notified that their employment ends October 1. (Some will be rehired by the new company at lower pay and without pension rights, i.e., paid holidays and vacation time.) And so, on July 3, most of the refuelers on the morning and afternoon shifts at Pearson Airport called in sick —a desperate, futile gesture, but understandable.  How can you not sympathize with them? Some of the beleagured ticket agents and other Air Canada personnel we talked to identified with them. Air Canada’s profit-mad owners and directors are to blame for the Snafu July 3, not the Consolidated refuelers.

The airline owners “earned” $13 billion last year. A Consolidated tank farm operator with 10 years on the job makes $19.65/hr  —that’s the wage the bosses want to suppress— and is responsible for “all aspects of hydrant and nozzle repair, including ramp hydrant and chamber work as required. The operation of the vacuum trucks and performing Vista leak detection testing,” according to the union contract.  Breathing gasoline fumes is not in the job description, but it is part of the job. So is deafening noise.

Millionaires who deprive workers of their hard-earned security in old age deserve the business end of a pitchfork.

Cut back to Toronto, 1 a.m., July 4. We’re in a hotel called the International Plaza watching the TV news and they’re showing distrtraught passengers who missed their Air Canada flights. The report was focused entirely on the inconvenience to passengers. With no context or explanation of why the men who fuel the planes called in sick, they were, implicitly, the cause of the problem. Air Canada came off looking like a victim —but doing its corporate best to assist its valued customers.

The truth is, Air Canada —which has been wringing every penny out of their ground crews, flight attendants, and ticket agents— not only drove the refuelers to call in sick, but exacerbated the situation for us passengers with a barrage of disinformation. We’d been told repeatedly that “for security reasons, you have to fly on the plane your bags are on,” and that our bags would “automatically” be put on the flight for which we were ticketed. After we checked in on the morning of July 4, I said to the agent as an afterthought,  “And our bags have been put on board?”  No, she said, our bags were in a room with many others to be identified by the owners and re-tagged. Fortunately, we had time to do that, and were spared another vigil by a carousel at SFO.

When we finally got home (18 hours late) I went online and found a semi-informative story about the work stoppage in the Toronto Sun. Reporter Allison Martell did not mention that men who had worked 20 years at the airport would lose their benefits and pensions and, if they took jobs with the new fueling company, would have their wages cut from $24 to $14 an hour She had not gone to the trouble of finding anyone who had called in sick and getting their POV. Instead, she quoted a union spokesman, who emphasized that it was “a wildcat strike,” not union-authorized.

The Sun piece gave ample space to the Air Canada flack, Peter Fitzpatrick, who misleadingly said that the strike was “affecting all airlines at Pearson.” On July 3 it was affecting only Air Canada. The airline’s kind offer to waive “change fees” for affected customers was duly reported. Well played, Pete.

Google Summary

Google Summary

Martell ended with a quote from some dudes who missed out on a week-end in Vegas. Too bad she didn’t encounter our friend Constance, who couldn’t get to the medicine in her luggage. For her it was a painful, terrible ordeal. For me it was a drag that cost a day in the life. Rosie came down with a wicked sore throat —first time in about 20 years, she says.

Flying home in business class was like flying coach back in the day. Plenty of leg room. Padded seats that don’t leave your butt corrugated after five hours. A warm, tasty little tenderloin with vino. I drank enough to think that The Breakfast Club was a really good flick.

This is how it ended for Constance: “We went to the hotel at 1:30 a.m., slept till 4:30, were back at the airport by 5:30. Stood in lines until we were told at 7 that contrary to what the fellow had said and written down at 1 a.m.., we had no reservations to get out of dodge at all. I had then been separated from my medicine for 36 hours, freezing, in cold sweats, shaky and in unbearable pain. I began crying uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Never happened to me before in my life, but that got two managers from Air Canada involved, and still, we almost missed getting onto the flight they booked because no one was paying attention. I had to actually start yelling our flight was boarding before they got us there from customs in time. They then charged me $7 for a blanket, because my two jackets were not enough to keep me from shivering and drenched in cold sweat. Paid $20 for the first food we’d had in about 16 hours. Made it home by 1 in the afternoon on Saturday. My relatives had arrived for a visit the day before.”