Malfunctioning sensor another 'snag' for prime minister's aging plane
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s flight to India in February was delayed due to a malfunctioning engine light, raising more questions about the government’s aging executive aircraft.
Emails obtained by CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson through an access to information request show that a gauge designed to monitor engine temperature began "fluctuating randomly" during the Feb. 16 flight to New Delhi, and that a ground crew at a scheduled refueling stop in Rome found “a few loose wires.”
The internal Air Force emails state that the “snag” caused a delay on the ground, and that although the problem seemed to be fixed before takeoff, the “snag came back” hours after the plane was back in the air.
The emails also show that Ottawa tried to muzzle members of the Royal Canadian Air Force crew who wanted to give interviews to reassure the public that the plane was safe.
Aviation experts say they don’t believe it was a safety issue, but the malfunction may be yet another sign that the 31-year-old Airbus 310-300 could need to be replaced sooner than currently-anticipated 2026.
Known officially as Can Force One, the plane was originally purchased by now-defunct Wardair in 1987. The Royal Canadian Air Force bought it in 1992 and refitted it with luxuries like a dining room, fold-out beds and a shower.
‘Not a good use of anyone’s time’
Defence analyst David Perry says that aircraft maintenance is like car maintenance.
“The older it gets, the more you have to periodically put into it to keep it up-to-date,” he explains. That could mean an escalating number of flight delays for the prime minister and government officials.
The plane already costs the government valuable time. It has a shorter range than newer aircraft, and that means more refuelling stops, according to Perry.
“You have a country’s political leader who’s trying to get to the other side of the world and having to make multiple stops,” he says. “It’s horrendously inefficient and not a good use of anyone’s time.”
The plane also has spotty communications technology – no television, limited and spotty Wi-Fi, and only one phone. In comparison, the United States’ Air Force One has a miniature Oval Office, a situation room, excellent Internet access and live TV. The U.S. has already contracted Boeing to replace Air Force One, at a cost of US$3.9 billion for two new 747s.
The plane’s relatively outdated features weren’t lost on Trudeau when he toured Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era U.S. presidential plane, which sits in a museum, according to a source.
Trudeau noted that Reagan had better communications capabilities than than he does now.
Fodder for opposition
Greg MacEachern, a Liberal strategist from Proof Strategies, says the plane’s poor communications capabilities are a problem that Canadians shouldn’t accept.
“Decisions are being made in real time, and if we can’t reach our prime minister, sometimes we may be left behind,” he said.
However, MacEachern says that moving up the timeline for the purchase of new planes could hurt the prime minister politically.
“We have a history in Canada -- I think this has been in every party, unfortunately -- where austerity has been politically rewarded,” he said.
“That’s why we have 24 Sussex, an official residence that’s empty right now, and that’s why we have planes that seem to return to airports at very inopportune times,” MacEachern added.
In fact, it was Liberal Jean Chretien who criticized the government of Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney for purchasing the plane in the first place. Chretien called it the “flying Taj Mahal” and refused to fly on the aircraft after he became prime minister in 1993.
History of problems
The “snag” during the prime minister’s India trip was not the first time Can Force One experienced problems.
In October 2016, the plane had to turn back after takeoff from Ottawa due a problem with a flap on the plane. Trudeau nearly missed the signing ceremony for the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) as a result.
In 2011, it took former prime minister Stephen Harper 30 hours to get to Australia to deliver a crucial speech because the plane required multiple refuelling stops.
With a report from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson and files from The Canadian Press