Passengers and representatives for both Air Transat and Ottawa/Macdonald–Cartier International Airport appeared before the Canadian Transportation Agency yesterday, during the first day of a public hearing regarding the delay of two flights which left passengers stuck on the tarmac for several hours.
Scott Streiner, president and CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency, accompanied by board members Sam Barone and Paul Fitzgerald, led the first day of the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Streiner recalled that air travel was an integral part of modern life.
"Usually, everything is fine, but if not, the passengers have rights. The Board ensures that these rights are respected,” Streiner said. "It is stated in the applicable Air Transat tariff that during a ramp delay, the crew must provide drinks and snacks when safe to do so and in situations where delay exceeds 90 minutes, passengers should be allowed to disembark, at the discretion of the pilot, until the time of departure."
During the course of the morning, the CTA heard from seven passengers from flights TS 507 and TS 157, which were travelling from Rome and Brussels. On July 31, the two Montreal-bound flights were diverted to YOW because of severe weather conditions. Upon landing, the two aircraft remained on the tarmac for several hours before refuelling took place.
Passengers used some strong terms to describe their experience, with phrases including "nightmare," "treated like cattle" and "as if I was luggage" stated during the hearing.
On board the plane from Rome with her spouse and her 13-month-old child, Marie-Hélène Tremblay, a lawyer by profession, was traveling in the Club Class in the front row.
"We had the right to perfect service on board. However, we wanted to disembark from the plane and we were denied," she explained, adding that she felt the airline should have provided more non-perishable food, as well as more water.
Without water, food, or toilet paper, Patricia and Alan Abraham remember the excessive heat and the foul smell in the back of the same plane.
Ottawa resident Brice de Schietere, a passenger on TS157, also asked to disembark as the plane happened to land in his city of residence. At one point, he was afraid that the situation would degenerate, until Marc Jetté made the call to 911.
Regarding Air Transat’s offer of $400 in compensation, he said, "for me, the contract was broken with Air Transat. I would like the full refund of my air ticket, as well as my actual costs, in addition to compensation. "
Marianne Zéhil, who was concerned by the temperature inside the aircraft and worried about her dog in the hold, said she had received no email from Air Transat.
Streiner asked the passengers a few questions, including the distribution of snacks and drinks.
Air Transat’s lawyer Madeleine Renaud declined to ask questions.
Mark Laroche, president and CEO of the Ottawa International Airport Authority
Later in the day, Mark Laroche, president and CEO of the Ottawa International Airport Authority, described the airport’s version of the incident.
"Airport authorities are not responsible for refueling and catering," Laroche said, explaining that the task is instead the responsibility of ground service providers, who are contracted to airlines.
Laroche explained that only the airline can decide to disembark its passengers. Of the 20 aircraft diverted, none had made that decision.
"The planes do not want to disembark the passengers. They want to refuel and leave,” he said.
The simultaneous closure of the Montreal and Toronto airports for two hours on July 31 forced a total of 20 aircraft to land in Ottawa. "Twenty diverted planes is an extremely high number. We're talking about 6,000 unplanned passengers,” Laroche said.
"Normally, a diversion includes up to six aircraft. It is very unusual for the Montreal and Toronto airports to be closed at the same time," said Ian Bell, vice-president of operations and infrastructure at YOW.
Even more exceptional, an Emirates A380 was among the 20 diverted planes. "In the history of the airport, we've received an A380 only three times," Bell said.
During Renaud’s statement, she claimed that the airport was not "in control" and had intervened, in her view, in favour of the diverted Emirates and KLM flights, allegations that Laroche refuted.
After six Toronto-bound aircraft landed around 5 p.m., the airport was close to full capacity. Another 10 aircraft landed in Ottawa afterwards.
Of the 20 planes, only two departed within 90 minutes. Eight others left after more than three hours of waiting, while Flights TS 507 and TS 157 remained on the ground for the longest time.
"It's first come, first served" in terms of refueling, explained Laroche. However, it was stated during the hearing that a KLM plane contacted the airport authority and was refueled in less than 20 minutes.
Michael Jopling, head of stopover and fueling operations at ASIG (Aircraft Service International Group), said that the day was among the most chaotic he has experienced in his career. Due to the high number of aircraft, some were poorly positioned for refueling (especially on grass), greatly increasing the time spent in Ottawa, he said.
Matthew Robillard, a refueling officer, received tens and dozens of phone calls in a few hours. "Everyone was asking me: why does it take so long? We always prefer planes which are on schedule, then we take care of diverted planes."
At the end of the day, a representative of Air Transat commented briefly, at the request of the media.
"We are aware of the difficult situation our passengers have experienced," said Christophe Hennebelle, Transat's vice-president of public affairs. “We apologize and we reiterate that. I think the hearings show the complexity of the situation. "
The hearing resumed this morning (Aug. 31) at 9 a.m. with the testimony of employees of First Air, a subcontractor of Air Transat.
Jean-François Lemay, CEO of Air Transat, as well as the two pilots of flights TS 507 and TS 157, will speak between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Check in with PAX tomorrow for the latest news from the hearing.
Christophe Hennebelle, Transat's vice-president of public affairs