STOCKHOLM — Nothing about flight BT9801 is ordinary. Including its scheduled departure time of 02:00 EST from Montréal this Tuesday night.
Half an hour past midnight, the complement of 18 souls flying over the Atlantic on the first airBaltic’s CS300, following the delivery ceremony on Monday, gathers at the Delivery Center in Bombardier’s Mirabel plant.
Nobody is present in the factory when the group walks in in the middle of the night, not even a receptionist or security, with people hauling their suitcases past a line-up of CRJ900s awaiting delivery. All are part of the crew for this flight, with Airways and a Latvian TV team being the only outsiders allowed on, and that only after passing a safety training session earlier at the Air Baltic crew training center in Riga.
While everybody awaits a smooth procedure, at about 01:30, bickering starts between Bombardier and airBaltic staff. The subject is an oil leak detected in one of the PW1500G engines, and the question how to sign this off and who takes responsibility for rectifying it later. The aircraft, MSN 55003 now registered YL-CSA, has already been test flown for about 20 hours.
“This often happens before a delivery, it’s like buying a new car, you want it to be in perfect shape and the dealer should take care of all problems before it is taken over by the customer,” explains airBaltic’s Chief Pilot CSeries, Gerhard Ramcke. He also reports there were some other findings, missing stickers in the cabin, and a defective push button on one of the trackball units in the cockpit, which has to be replaced.
The arguments go back and forth between both sides, everybody seems to be tired, but still very focused. Finally, they find agreements everybody can live with.
“It’s always better to discuss with technicians than with lawyers, it takes five minutes for technicians to agree, but two hours for lawyers”, one Bombardier team member exclaims.
At 02:23, the aircraft is now officially operated by airBaltic, after all issues are solved, and SVP Flight Operations Pauls Calitis holds a short briefing. “Six of the 18 souls on board tonight are pilots, three of ours and three from Bombardier,” he announced, “and we will take turns in the cockpit.”
Flight time to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport is estimated to be six hours and 40 minutes, with the route being slightly longer, as the CSeries is not yet certified for ETOPS operations. And also it’s not equipped with HF communications, as would be normal on a Transatlantic flight, as this is not needed for European routes the aircraft will perform at airBaltic.
At about 03:30, the fliers are simply walking out onto the pitch dark tarmac and after a lengthy stroll in temperatures slightly below freezing, they reach their aircraft, parked outside after some last-minute engine-run ups.
The cabin is lit up in airBaltic’s corporate green color, which makes a very impressive first sight on entering from the darkness outside. It also instantly showcases the impact of the mood-lighting system this aircraft is equipped with, and underscores the fact that the CSeries is a serious airliner along the lines of Airbus or Boeing types, as even the cabin appearance very much resembles their latest long haul jets the A350 and the 787.
airBaltic is the first airline ordering mood-lighting on the CSeries. The much bigger windows and high ceiling contribute to a wide-body feeling, though of course the CSeries is a single-aisle aircraft with 2+3 seating. Air Baltic has equipped its cabin with 145 “SlimPlus” seats manufactured by Zodiac, clad in leather of a light grey, almost whitish color, that might be prone to look stained easily after some time of heavy-duty utilization.
In any case as pristine as they are now, they look very stylish.
Despite the pitch being 30’’ (76.2cm), the seats feel very roomy, thanks to their slim architecture. The middle seats on the right side of the cabin are even wider at 19’’, and all other seats boast a generous width of 18.5’’, while an A320 usually offers 17’’ seat width. airBaltic’s seats allow a considerable recline, with the whole seat pan moving forward and upwards, minimizing the impact for the passenger sitting behind.
This seems to be a win-win and huge advantage over the dreaded “pre-reclined” seats with fixed seatbacks that many low-cost carriers use, and which seeps now into network carrier’s cabins like TAP Air Portugal and some Air France Airbuses.
airBaltic has opted not to use different seating for Business Class, which Bombardier proposes in a 2+2 layout with 36’’ pitch, but rather has stitched “Seat not to be occupied” writings into the seat covers in the first three rows, on the aisle seat of the left and the middle seats on the right side, keeping these seats always free. The curtain that will divide both cabins hadn’t been installed yet.
This is a no-fuss flight, with no seat assignments or boarding passes, not mentioning the lack of any security checks or passport control before boarding. Instead, the 16 people riding in the cabin are asked to congregate aft of the wings just for take-off, to spread the weight more evenly in the largely empty cabin.
In some rows, luggage occupies the space in front of seats, while the single over wing exit row is blocked on both sides with boxes of catering for the flight, consisting of pre-packed plastic containers of cold sandwiches, sweet pastries, fruit, cake, salad as well as a choice of a chicken or beef meal with rice and vegetables to be heated in the galley.
It seems Bombardier purchased at least parts of the supplies in local supermarkets, as some boxes wear price tags. The galley racks forward and aft are stocked with different kinds of soft drinks, including cardboard containers of Tim Horton’s heated coffee as well as some candy supplies. Just exploring the different options, opening racks to check what’s inside, is part of the lure of such an unusual operation as a delivery flight.
After doors are closed, a seemingly endless time passes without any action, while in the cockpit, Pauls Calitis and one of the three Bombardier pilots, sent to Riga to help with the introduction of the aircraft into service, are doing extensive pre-flight checks.
At 03:57 EST, engines finally come to life, which is audible only very subdued in the cabin. “We don’t have the same problems with the new Geared Turbofan engines as Airbus A320neo operators complain about, as they use the different PW1100G and we the PW1500G,” explains Gerhard Ramcke.
Start-up, which can take minutes otherwise, is a pretty swift affair here as the engines were doing run-ups just before this flight. Although of course there is no other traffic this time of night, the former main international airport Montréal Mirabel is so vast that the CS300 on its way to takeoff needs to taxi for 8km before reaching the end of the proper runway, led by a follow-me car.
At 04:13 EST, over two hours late, it’s wheels up for flight BT9801 bound for Stockholm. Takeoff weight today is 57 tons, ten tons short of the CS300’s MTOW.
Once in the air, many passengers get ready to sleep, as some of the mechanics and operations staff has worked for several hours and had very short nights prior to handover of the first CS300. As the armrests of the three seat-rows are easily flipping upwards, these make surprisingly good makeshift beds.
Only about two hours into the flight going East, over the coast of Newfoundland, the sun rises to the East of the aircraft. The back of the cabin becomes the “sleeping compartment” with window blinds firmly shut, while the front sees the other passengers congregate around the forward galley or behind the pilots. Of course the huge privilege of a delivery flight is the constantly open cockpit door.
All can witness the pilots explaining to ATC that no, the aircraft does not have HF, which seems to surprise each controller taking over the flight.
The route leads the aircraft to pass just to the south of the southern tip of Greenland. Snowy mountain peaks and deep fjords lie 41,000 feet below in pristine sunshine in an orange glow, typical for the low light the area this far north gets in winter.
Iceland, which the route passes to the south as well, is hidden by clouds. After about three and a half hours of daylight, the sun sets again, while shortly after, the aircraft flies over Norway, coming into Stockholm Arlanda at 16:54 CET, after a flight time of exactly 6 hours, 40 minutes and 39 seconds. To the minute the duration that Pauls Calitis had predicted this morning in Montréal.
The CS300, such as the CS100, already in service with SWISS, has clearly proven why it will become a favorite with passengers and airlines. It is even well suited for long-haul operations, while of course this won’t be its mission.
The 5,800km distance from Montréal to Stockholm is well within the range of the CS300, even with a full load of passengers, Bombardier indicates its range as being 6,112km (3,300nm).
airBaltic, however, will put it on short European hops, starting with Amsterdam as of December 14 for the first scheduled flight. Before, it will tour four important neighboring markets on demos for invited guests, with stops planned in Tallinn, Vilnius, Helsinki and Hamburg.
The airline has already twelve pilots certified to fly the CS300, and it will receive the second aircraft of 20 ordered before the end of the year, putting it into service in January.
After Airways had left, the aircraft did the short hop from Stockholm to Riga on Wednesday morning, prior to a high-level welcome event attended by Latvia’s President on Thursday night.