Flying with the stars

It’s been over 30 years since Air Transat’s inaugural flight departed Montreal, bound for Acapulco, Mexico.

And when the airline’s only plane, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, returned to Mirabel Airport after that November 1987 flight, the maintenance team had to scramble to service the aircraft.

Air Transat is in the middle of a fleet rationalization that will be completed in 2022. Eventually, it will fly only wide-body Airbus A330s (shown here) and single-aisle A321s. John Chung Photo
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“They were down to the last cent on that particular flight and actually had to borrow a case of oil because they had to replenish the engines,” said Marc Gilbert, Air Transat’s director of flight operations, in a recent interview with Skies.

The flight was the culmination of the work of Jean-Marc Eustache and the team at Trafic Voyages, a Quebec-based travel agency that, along with a group of 25 ex-Quebecair pilots, decided to start an airline.

More TriStars soon joined the fleet, “and then, the airline needed smaller airplanes to serve other markets, so they acquired Boeing 727-200s, which were ex-Air Canada airplanes. That’s when I was hired, in September 1991, when the 727 was introduced,” said Gilbert.

Now part of Transat A.T., one of the world’s largest travel providers, the Montreal-based airline flies vacationers and “family-and-friends” travellers to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, the United States, and other destinations from airports across Canada.

At its 30th anniversary celebration in 2017, Air Transat unveiled its new livery. Transat A.T. Photo

Air Transat has had a particularly eclectic fleet throughout its history, one that brings joy to plane spotters through their camera viewfinders, but one that can also make airline operations a challenge.

Over the years, the airline flew as many as 20 TriStars, along with Boeing 727s and 757s. The current fleet includes the Boeing 737-700 and -800, and the Airbus A310, A321, A330-200 and -300.

Historically, Air Transat has “flexed” its fleet, adjusting seasonal capacity through leases. In the 2018-2019 winter exchange program, four Air Transat A330s flew with the European-based Thomas Cook Airlines Group, while eight of that organization’s A321s were on this side of the Atlantic.

Sunset for the A310

Air Transat is still one of the world’s largest operators of the venerable Airbus A310, with six in the fleet.

Air Transat flies to some 60 destinations in 26 countries, carrying close to five million passengers every year. John Chung Photo

The airline isn’t the only Canadian operator of the A310. The Royal Canadian Air Force has five of the planes–designated as the CC-150 Polaris–in tanker and transport configurations, along with the VIP-outfitted “Can Force One” that flies Prime Minister Trudeau on international missions.

Mauricio Diaz, Air Transat’s manager, Commercial Operations Control Centre (OCC), explained that parts are available and that the airline’s mechanics are certainly experienced with the A310s, but that the planes aren’t necessarily airborne as much as some of the newer jets in the fleet.

“We try to keep them [flying] under a hundred hours per week. When you do that, you’re able to find ground time to be able to fix little things here and there,” said Diaz, who has been with Air Transat for over 22 years.

After years of safe and efficient operations, Air Transat’s A310s are being phased out, as each plane approaches its next extensive “C-check” maintenance overhaul.

Air Transat is a business unit of Transat A.T. Inc., an international tourism company specializing in holiday travel and offering vacation packages, hotel stays and air travel. Galen Burrows Photo

As the A310s fly off into the sunset, the airline is embarking on a fleet rationalization project that will be completed in 2022. To reduce the complexities of crew training, scheduling, and maintenance on a varied mix of planes, the airline has decided to streamline its flight operations with an all-Airbus fleet.

That decision was far from simple, according to Gilbert, because of the difficulty in finding a new plane that matched the operating economics of the 245-seat A310.

“That was the big dilemma. The A310 is essentially the perfect airplane for us, for Europe, because it has the perfect number of seats. It was very difficult because there is not a single airplane that can replace the A310 in capacity and range. The closest aircraft was the A321LR.”

Efficient LRs

Over the next four years, the A310s and 737s will leave Air Transat, and the airline will ultimately operate a star-liveried fleet of wide-body A330s and single-aisle A321s. The narrow-bodies may end up as a mix of A321ceo, re-engined A321neo, and A321LR aircraft, explained Gilbert.

An Air Transat A321LR in the final position in the Airbus Hamburg assembly line. The A321LR (Long Range) will let Air Transat expand its route map by reaching new destinations. Howard Slutsken Photo

Air Transat will configure its A321LRs with 199 seats, even though the plane is certified to carry up to 240 passengers.

The efficiency of the A321LR far exceeds the twin-aisle A310s, even with a 19 per cent reduction in seats. “Even if you prorate that to the fuel burn difference, we’re saving 36 per cent in fuel burn on every single flight,” said Gilbert. “The LR is a great airplane because it’s versatile. We’ll be able to fly to all our small markets, and it has the range to serve France and the U.K.”

New destinations

“We’ll get our first A321LR in April 2019, and the second one two months later. It will be a milestone in our company,” said Gilbert.

The capabilities of the A321LR will allow Air Transat to add new routes to destinations that couldn’t previously support a wide-body passenger load. But the airline doesn’t make those decisions unilaterally.

From its first flight in 1987, Air Transat has grown steadily. In 2018, it was named World’s Best Leisure Airline by Skytrax. John Chung Photo

Transat Travel’s marketing team will first explore a new destination, looking to set up relationships with hotels and activity providers in order to create new packages for holiday travellers. But the airline is brought into the planning process early, to ensure that the new service can be launched.

“We here at Flight Ops will work with our performance engineers and create a risk analysis,” said Gilbert. That analysis lays out the operational guidelines for the new service, along with any issues or restrictions due to airport or airspace concerns.

Passengers first

Having a far-flung and relatively small fleet can be challenging for Diaz’s team in Air Transat’s OCC, when aircraft have maintenance issues at destinations that are served at a low flight frequency.

Co-ordinating with flight dispatch, maintenance control, passenger support services, and crew scheduling, the OCC monitors the airline’s fleet around-the-clock.

Air Transat’s Operations Control Centre follows each aircraft around the clock. The company says a “passenger first” mentality drives delay-related decisions. John Chung Photo

“We follow every flight, all the time, and if there’s any issues with the aircraft, whether delays or maintenance, we have to make decisions to fix the problem,” said Diaz.

He described his team’s decision-making process during a recent maintenance issue with one of the airline’s jets.  “So, what do you do, what are the options? Do you have another airplane you can send, or do we have parts to fix the airplane?  We couldn’t fix it right away, so we had to take about a 20-hour delay until the next day, and we sent the passengers to a hotel. We sent parts and a mechanic and fixed the plane.”

Delays are a fact of life in the airline world, but Diaz’s multi-functional team has one priority.

“Every time we have a delay, we’re always trying to think of the passenger first. Even if you may have a chance to fix the airplane, or to send another one, it may be better for the passengers to send everyone to a hotel, quickly,” said Diaz.

Workers load cargo onto an Air Transat flight. Air Transat Photo

“Having a big delay isn’t a problem if you treat passengers well, if you communicate with them and if you tell them what’s going on. But there’s some delays where you’re stuck in places where it’s difficult to function, where passengers are waiting at the airport, or with problems like we had in Ottawa [in July 2017].”

And not that he expects flight delays to be a thing of the past, but Diaz recognizes that Air Transat’s fleet plans will have a positive impact on the airline’s operations. “I think it will be simpler for us to have the same family of airplane. And it will make our job a little bit easier, for sure.”

A flexible fleet and proficient pilots

Air Transat’s A330 pilots are in the process of being trained on the A320-series, which includes the A321 and A321LR. After completing a one-week Cross Cockpit Qualification (CCQ) course, the pilots will be checked out to fly either the narrow-body A321 or the wide-body A330.

This isn’t a new concept–pilots can cross over between the single-aisle 757 and the twin-aisle 767, an operational feature that Boeing factored into the design of the two 1980s-vintage aircraft.

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Air Transat’s A330 pilots are in the process o being cross-qualified on the A320-series (shown here), which includes the A321 and A321LR. John Chung Photo

“It’s what we call MFF, or mixed fleet flying,” explained Gilbert. “For example, a pilot can fly an A330 from Montreal to Paris, overnight there or deadhead, say, to Bordeaux. Then the next day, the pilot can bring an A321 back from Bordeaux to Montreal. That gives us flexibility.”

A330 captain Martine Olivier is one of the airline’s pilots who will be heading to the CCQ course. Olivier has been with the airline since 1993, first as a flight attendant, then as a pilot, after flying with several other Canadian airlines.

She got the flying “bug” when she was invited to watch a landing from the jump seat of a 727 during a holiday flight, back when flight deck visits were permitted. “That was the most magical moment for me and that’s when I decided this is what I wanted to do.”

In 2011, Olivier was part of the first all-female crew on an Air Transat flight. “It was a special day for all of us. One of our flight attendants put a sign on the flight deck door-‘No Boys Allowed!!!’  The whole crew was very proud, the passengers were happy, and everyone had a good laugh. I’ll remember that day as one of the best moments of my career!”

Historically, Air Transat has “flexed” its fleet, adjusting seasonal capacity through leases. Scott McGeachy Photo

Making the decision to return to Air Transat as a pilot was an easy one for Olivier, in large part because of the airline’s culture and size.

“What makes it special is the people that I work with–I have the most extraordinary colleagues. There’s always a positive energy between us since we all know each other and there is a real close family atmosphere,” said Olivier.

Both Diaz and Gilbert echo those sentiments. “I think people here really do care,” said Diaz. “We went through tough times and always find a way to make it work. It’s like a family for us here. People come from other companies to work here, and one of their first comments is that it’s like a small family here. Well, now it’s a bigger family!”

Gilbert agreed. “Today it’s over 600 pilots and 2,000 flight attendants–and we’re hiring eight to 10 new pilots a month. In their interviews, we ask, ‘Why do you want to work at Air Transat?’ They say, ‘We hear that it’s like a family company and everybody’s well treated.’ And we love that.”

Air Transat still operates six Airbus A310 aircraft, although they are being phased into retirement. “The A310 is essentially the perfect airplane for us, for Europe, because it has the perfect number of seats,” says Marc Gilbert, Air Transat’s director of flight operations. John Chung Photo

For Olivier, it’s clear that Air Transat is her home.

“As we say here, I’ve always had the Air Transat star tattooed on my heart–l’étoile tattouée sur le coeur.”

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