Passengers forced to breathe through seat covers as smoke fills airplane cabin

A Q400 lands at Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. Rick Madonik / File / Toronto Star

HALIFAX – A passenger is questioning why there were no oxygen masks aboard a Porter Airlines flight that was forced to make an emergency landing Monday after smoke filled the aircraft.

Don McDonald of Paradise, N.L., was flying with family members from Halifax to St. John’s, N.L., when someone noticed smoke coming from the front of the cabin about 30 minutes after takeoff.

“The fire alarm was going off, the red light was flashing,” said McDonald.

MacDonald said as smoke gradually began to fill the cabin area the flight crew instructed passengers to use the cloth material draping the headrests of their seats to breathe through.

The 61-year-old said he wasn’t all that surprised by the instructions because he had seen nothing mentioning the use of oxygen masks in the aircraft’s safety instructions.

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“There was nothing about a mask dropping down,” said MacDonald.

In an e-mailed statement Porter Airlines said the aircraft in question, Bombardier’s Q400, operates below 25,000 feet and is therefore not required to have drop-down oxygen under regulations administered by Transport Canada and the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S.

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“For aircraft that operate above 25,000 feet, drop down oxygen is mandated due to the time it takes for the aircraft to conduct an emergency descent to a safe altitude (typically 14,000 feet or less),” the statement said. “This is not a factor for the Q400.”

MacDonald estimates the turbo prop landed in Sydney about 12 to 15 minutes after the initial alarm, by which time the 66 passengers on board were told to adopt the brace position by the flight crew and the thickening smoke had gotten “quite intense.”

“If the flight lasted another 15 or 20 minutes I think there would have been a different outcome because the smoke was getting more intense all the time. Even breathing through the fabric you could still sense the smoke.”

MacDonald, travelling with his wife, sister-in-law, a niece and her 10-month-old baby, said he thinks there should have been some kind of mask or safety device available.

MacDonald said he has a scratchy throat, but can’t say for sure whether it’s a result of the incident. He also commended the crew as “very professional” and said he wouldn’t hesitate to fly with Porter again.

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“I reported this just for regulators to look at it and see if something can be done.”

Transport Canada couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

The airline said that oxygen masks are not typically deployed in the event of smoke on aircraft equipped with them.

It said in the case of Monday’s flight the pilot was able to land safely soon after the emergency was declared.

But passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs said he was shocked to learn the Q400 doesn’t have oxygen masks.

Lukacs said although the aircraft doesn’t fly as high as many commercial planes there is an element of passenger safety that from his point of view appears to be lacking, despite regulations.

“I would say that an aircraft that carries passengers and that operates as a commercial entity should be carrying oxygen masks,” he said.

The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.

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