I was scheduled to fly from Toronto to Paris one rainy Friday evening back in early 2002. I'd checked in and gotten to the boarding area with plenty of time to spare. The flight's scheduled departure time was something like 7pm and boarding commenced on time. Since I spend a lot of time on airplanes, the airline in question, Air Canada, lets me board early (I'm actually foolish enough to take advantage of this "reward" for my loyalty. After all, it earns me the privilege of . . . wait for it . . . spending even MORE time on the airplane waiting for other folks to board).

Whatever - the end result is that I'm usually one of the first dozen or so passengers on the plane (just to be clear - I get to fly "cattle class" except when I've got a suitable upgrade certificate).

So it came to pass that I was sitting in my seat not doing much of anything as the remaining passengers slowly boarded the plane in search of their seats.

Although I certainly didn't notice them at the time, two ladies in their fifties or sixties took seats immediately in front of me and a group of four people took a set of seats about a half dozen rows ahead of me.

A short while later, a pair of people came onto the plane with boarding passes for the (already occupied) seats immediately in front of me. As it soon became VERY clear, the two somewhat elderly ladies seated immediately in front of me were travelling together but had not been assigned seats together. One of them had been assigned the seat immediately next to mine and the other had been assigned a seat about twenty rows further back. Since these seats were "clearly unacceptable", they had taken the liberty of "assigning" themselves seats which were more to their liking. Now that the folks who'd been assigned the seats in question had shown up, the two ladies were simply NOT interested in moving. As the flight was actually 100% full (as I found out later) and the folks with boarding passes for the pair of seats in front of me wanted to sit together also, a fairly heated discussion broke out.

Just as this entertainment (using the term in the most negative connotation possible) got underway, a similar tale of woe broke out about a half dozen rows ahead of me involving the group of four people I mentioned earlier. It seemed that they were also travelling together and had been assigned two pairs of seats that were separated by a few rows. Having gotten onto the plane first, one pair had simply taken the then-empty seats in the row immediately behind their friends. When the folks with boarding passes for these seats showed up, they wanted their assigned seats and weren't willing to move (I don't recall exactly why although the seats under discussion were a window and aisle pair which is fairly attractive seating for two people travelling together).

The pair of discussions gradually grew in intensity until a flight attendant arrived to investigate. The position taken by the two ladies was really quite simple - they liked the seats that they were sitting in and simply weren't inclined to move. The flight attendant tried to explain that they were going to have to move to their assigned seats but really wasn't making much headway.

When it became clear that one of the ladies had been assigned the seat next to mine, I began to contemplate trading my seat with the other lady since I didn't really care where I sat as long as it was an aisle seat (and the other lady's seat was an aisle seat). Just as I was about to offer my seat, the lady who'd been assigned the seat next to me started to verbally attack and berate the flight attendant. Maybe I'm a bit old fashioned but I simply saw no reason to reward such rude behaviour and decided to just sit and watch. Naturally, the flight attendant soon asked me if I was willing to trade seats with the other lady. I politely declined (later in the "flight", I explained to the flight attendant why I'd refused to switch seats - she understood my perspective completely). This pretty much brought the issue to a close and the flight attendant gave the ladies the option of taking their seats or leaving the airplane. The pair decided that they'd rather fly to Paris that night so they took their seats (I got to put up with some "death glares" from the lady next to me for the next half dozen hours but, as they say in Paris, C'est la vie).

The flight attendant then moved on to the other discussion. The pair who had "self assigned" themselves new seats had a totally different "foundation" to their position. It seemed that the airline representative at the boarding gate had told them to not worry about having officially assigned seats that were separated because the flight attendants on the plane would get them seats that were together. The flight attendant proceeded to explain that that was simply not the way things worked on a full flight but the pair in the wrong seats were putting up fairly strong resistance (it didn't become rude but there were some rather excessive liberties being taken with the truth from time to time). In the end, the flight attendant forced the issue (very politely) and the pair moved to their correct seats.

With the pre-flight "entertainment" out of the way, everyone quickly settled down (other than the lady next to me who continued to try to kill me with her eyes). The seat belt sign came on and, although I was too far back to see, the plane door was closed and the bridge (the "tunnel in the air" that you walk through as you approach the airplane) was retracted.

We were on our way to Paris! We'll be there in about seven hours! My first time! Should be fun! Paris that is, flights aren't "fun" anymore for me.

And then . . .

We sat for a while.

Not that long at first.

Just a few minutes.

It's not unusual for the plane to just sit there for a few minutes after they close the door and retract the bridge.

And then things started to go just a little bit wrong.

The pilot's voice came on the intercom system and told us that due to a thunderstorm in the area, we were going to wait by the gate for a few more minutes.

After a few minutes, things went just a little bit more wrong.

The pilot announced that the thunderstorm was right over the airport and we were going to have to wait for it to pass over. He passed on the information that this was expected to take about twenty minutes.

Twenty or so minutes later and things got even more wrong when the pilot was back on the intercom explaining that the storm wasn't moving as fast as expected but that we'd be underway shortly.

Remember - the plane had not moved yet. It was still parked at the gate. The door was closed and the bridge had been retracted but the plane had not moved yet.

We waited.

We waited some more.

A passenger apparently asked to leave the plane as the pilot got back on the intercom to explain that safety rules prohibit the plane from being touched in any way by anyone outside of the plane during a thunderstorm and that this made it impossible to move the bridge back and open the door. It simply wasn't possible for anyone to leave the plane.

We waited.

We waited some more.

The passengers were getting restless. Not in a bad way, just tired of sitting with nothing much to do and with the plane not going anywhere (trust me: it is a lot easier to sit in one's seat reading a book or something when the plane is actually flying somewhere than when it is sitting at the gate waiting for a thunderstorm to pass through the area).

A member of the cabin crew came on the intercom and explained that they didn't want to start cabin service (i.e. pretzels, drinks and an evening meal) as the plane could not take off if passengers have their tray tables down and they wanted to make sure that the plane could take off as soon as the storm leaves the area. They did start the in-flight entertainment (i.e. the evening news appeared on the overhead screens).

We watched the news in English.

We watched the news in French.

We even watched the sports summary and the business report.

The seatbelt sign had been off for a while so people were able to move around the cabin.

A member of the cabin crew then announced that the pilot had authorized him to start the cabin service (in hind sight, this was probably a VERY bad sign). The cabin crew came through the cabin with pretzels, drinks and the evening meal.

The first movie started.

The lady next to me was still trying to kill me with her eyes.

The first movie ended.

The cabin crew took away the remains of the meal and got the plane back into "able to take off" state.

The second movie started.

The second movie ended.

At about midnight (i.e. five hours after we were supposed to have left for Paris), a member of the cabin crew came on again and told us that the thunderstorm had left the area. Unfortunately, our flight crew had been awake for too long and regulations did not permit them to fly to Paris that night. Not to worry. A replacement flight crew was being summoned and we were told that we should be underway shortly. Since the thunderstorm is was finally over, the bridge had been moved back into place and the plane's door opened. We were told that we could leave the airplane but that we should stay in the gate area so that we could leave as soon as the replacement crew arrived. I seem to recall that we were also told that we could ask for our checked luggage and try again tomorrow if we wanted to.

I still wanted to get to Paris so I decided to stick it out.

Time passed.

I was out in the gate area and I saw a flight crew walk by. Naturally, we were not the only flight that needed a new flight crew and this flight crew wasn't ours.

Another flight crew walked by. Someone from my flight hollered out something along the lines of "Do you want to fly us to Paris?" The pilot chuckled and explained that he had to fly a different plane to Frankfurt.

We waited some more.

It was now about 2am (i.e. scheduled arrival time in Paris). My fellow passengers were starting to get just a little bored. No. They were getting a LOT bored. They were still well behaved but folks were definitely running out of steam.

We waited some more.

I'd wandered up to the front of the plane and was talking to one of the flight attendants. I was told that the flight would almost certainly be cancelled shortly as it doesn't look like they could get a flight crew.

I then walked out to the gate area again and there was now a City of Toronto police officer standing there. I asked him what's up and he explained that there had been a few incidents elsewhere and someone had decided that it was just a good idea to have him at the gate. He was in a talkative mood and went on to explain that there had been an incident on another flight in which someone really REALLY wanted to get off the plane. He didn't say what the end result had been but I had to agree that his presence might be useful.

I then walked back onto the plane and talked to one of the flight attendant. He confirmed to me that the flight was going to be cancelled within the next five minutes. He suggested that I might want to go and retrieve my carry-on luggage and "beat the rush".

I went and retrieved my carry-on case and walked back to the front of the plane (I'd decided that I wouldn't actually leave the plane until the flight was actually cancelled - you're right - I am an optimist - quite incurable but it's much more fun than being a pessimist).

A cabin crew member came on the intercom and announced that the flight was cancelled. We were told to return to the gate area and reclaim our flight coupon (i.e. paper ticket) if we weren't flying with an electronic ticket. We were also told to wait in the gate area for further instructions.

I headed out to the gate area where a truly chaotic process got underway to return the paper tickets (they called out the names in some quasi-random order and you stuck up your hand so that they could pass you the ticket to you with the assistance of passengers between you and the poor fellow in the middle).

Although chaotic, everyone was still in reasonably good humour (maybe the police officer's presence helped) and the paper tickets were soon redistributed.

We were then told where to collect our checked luggage and told that any passengers who were not starting their trip in Toronto would be put up in a hotel at the airline's expense.

I then headed out to get my luggage. The scene at the baggage area was NOT a pretty sight. There was no police officer present and it was taking a while for the bags to appear. People with tickets that didn't start in Toronto were being issued vouchers for a hotel room and told where to get a shuttle bus to the hotel once they got their luggage. People whose journey was starting in Toronto were told to "go home" once they had their luggage (some of these folks had driven a few hours to get to the airport so "going home" wasn't an option). We were also told to call the airline in the morning to find out which flight we'd be taking to Paris later that day.

Some of the passengers "lost their composure" at this point and one poor airline representative took some pretty serious verbal abuse (it wasn't their fault that the flight was cancelled but some folks needed to vent and they did).

To make a long story (slightly) shorter, I eventually got my luggage and got on a bus for the hotel. I checked into the hotel at 0430am and slept for a few hours. I called the airline and found that I was booked to fly to Paris at 7pm that evening (Saturday).

My second attempt to get to Paris worked (the flight was about an hour late but it got there Sunday morning). This was a special "replacement" flight and was only about three-quarters full. All in all, it was a pleasant enough flight.


Shortly after boarding my flight back from Paris a week later, I got to see the same flight attendant "disarm" another argument over who got to sit in which seat. I played no role in this argument so I just sat and watched. Later in the flight, I walked to the back of the plane and said something along the lines of "do you get to referee seat disputes often?". She recognized me from the earlier trip and we had a bit of a chuckle over the utter stupidity of some passengers.

The events described above happened as described (to the best of my recollection). I've told this story from time to time and have come to refer to it as "my practice flight to Paris" because:

  • The time spent on the plane from boarding to the point that the flight was cancelled was just slightly longer than the scheduled flight time.
  • We were fed and provided with refreshments.
  • We watched the in-flight entertainment.
  • Basically, we did everything except actually fly to Paris!

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