The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has ruled Air Transat broke its agreement with passengers when it left them in two planes stranded on the tarmac of the Ottawa International Airport on July 31.

The agency found that though the initial diversion was out of Air Transat's control, the delays were not, completely, and it should have still been able to fulfill its obligation to passengers for food, drink and an opportunity to disembark.

The agency's report said Air Transat's staff, including pilots, did not seem to be properly informed or trained about their legal obligation to passengers, also known as the airline's tariff.

The CTA has ordered Air Transat to compensate passengers for any out-of-pocket expenses related to the delay and pay an administrative fine of $295,000. The fine may be waived if the sum is divided amongst the passengers.

The transportation agency held a two-day hearing in Ottawa in August about the two flights, destined for Montreal from Brussels and Rome, that were diverted to Ottawa due to weather. The agency's decision was announced on Thursday.

After landing, passengers were kept aboard the planes for more than four hours, in one case with no air-conditioning, food or water. At least one passenger resorted to calling 911. 

The Air Transat tariff says passengers have the right to get off a grounded plane after 90 minutes if the captain decides it is OK, and that the crew has to offer drinks and snacks if it is safe to do so.

Ordered to avoid repeat

The CTA has also ordered Air Transat make changes to keep a similar incident from happening again, including that the air carrier:

  • Train all employees involved in offering services during onboard delays about the legal obligations under its tariff.
  • Amend its tariff to include a requirement to update passengers every 30 minutes and deplane passengers after four hours of delay if it is safe by Feb. 27, 2018.
  • Provide a stricter definition of events that release it from contractual obligations.

In a statement, Air Transat  apologized to passengers and said it will take all necessary measures to comply with the CTA's report. It has decided to pay passengers on all affected flights $500 in compensation, though it will take into account what has already been paid out to passengers.

Passengers faced 'deplorable' ordeal

On the first day of the inquiry, passengers described Air Transat's handling of the situation as "deplorable" and said they were treated like "luggage."

Air Transat has already offered $400 in compensation to passengers on Flight TS157 from Brussels, which was delayed six hours. The airline said it was a gesture of "good faith" because the air conditioning broke down on that flight.

Passengers on Flight TS507 from Rome, who had to wait more than four hours, were not previously offered compensation.

Alan Abraham, who was on the flight from Rome and was a witness at the hearing, said he was happy the agency sided with passengers, but added it could've gone farther.

"The ruling went in our way. That we're not just pieces of luggage like they treated us," he said.

"I honestly believe they should be refunding all passengers' plane tickets in full, whatever the cost may be."

Abraham said he was unhappy with the way Air Transat tried to deflect responsibility during the hearing and he won't be travelling with the carrier again.

Alan and Patricia Abraham Air Transat flight 507 witnesses Aug 30 2017

Alan and Patricia Abraham were passengers aboard Air Transat Flight 507 from Rome to Montreal on July 31, which was diverted to Ottawa due to storms. They testified at the Canadian Transportation Agency hearing in August. (CBC)

In a statement, a group of passengers from TS157 said they welcomed the agency's decision and thanked it for the investigation.

They said the investigation showed Air Transat knew about the problems with the air-conditioning system and failed to act, and that it failed to train their staff on their obligations to passengers according to the tariff — specifically that passengers should have been able to disembark after 90 minutes. 

Paul DeBecker, a passenger on the flight from Brussels, said his 10-year-old daughter was only given a warm chocolate bar during the long wait and was passing out due to thirst and heat. 

He said the money wasn't the most important issue to him.

"To me, it's more about how air companies treat their customers when something happens."

Passenger bill of rights

The statement added that the ordeal underlines the need to protect passengers with legislation in Canada, something the federal government has been working on since May.

"The situation on TS157 could have been much worse," the statement said.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau said the Air Transat incident is an example of why he introduced a passenger bill of rights, to ensure travellers have recourse that doesn't rely on the CTA conducting inquiries.

The bill is currently in the Senate, and Garneau expects it will pass soon.  

"I think the Senate does its job and does it seriously and we have been working very hard to answer all of their questions," he said. "I will remain optimistic that the bill will make its way through by Christmas."

Airline, airport blamed each other

Air Transat told the hearing it was trying to avoid financial and logistical complications by keeping passengers aboard the planes as they waited for refuelling.

Officials from the airline said their objective was to get to Montreal as efficiently as possible. Deplaning could have caused more delays as passengers would have to go through customs or hotels would need to be arranged, the inquiry heard.

Airline representatives said they received no requests to deplane and were repeatedly told refuelling was between 15 and 30 minutes away. In its earliest responses to the incident, Air Transat said that no stairway was available for passengers to exit the planes. 

The CTA said evidence showed passengers had requested food and drink and that Air Transit's tariff outlined an obligation to offer those amenities anyway.

The Ottawa International Airport was handling about 20 flights that had been diverted from Toronto and Montreal due to weather on July 31.

The Ottawa International Airport Authority has maintained that it was the responsibility of the airline and its ground contractors to handle deplaning, but that the authority had gates available and would have responded to a request for help if it had been made.

air transat employees inquiry cta delays passengers stranded ottawa aug 31 2017

Air Transat employees testified at the Canadian Transportation Agency inquiry on Aug. 31, defending their handling of the diverted flights. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

The CTA report said while the situation was complex, responsibility for fulfilling Air Transat's obligation to passengers remained with the air carrier.

"There is no basis, however, for any argument that the carrier is not responsible for non-performance of its obligations," the report said.

It also said, while it's beyond the agency's authority to force air carriers, airports and related parties to co-operate during unusual diversion events, "it strongly encourages them to do so."

  • Marketplace has spent months investigating sky-high flight complaints.  Are we getting the passenger bill of rights we deserve? Watch Marketplace Friday at 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. in NL, on CBC TV.