Air Transat passengers describe 'deplorable' treatment at first day of inquiry

Passengers stuck for hours aboard two Air Transat flights stranded on the tarmac at the Ottawa International Airport last month testified at a public hearing Wedneday that their treatment was "deplorable."

Ottawa International Airport Authority says it's not responsible for issues of July 31

Alan and Patricia Abraham were among the passengers stuck for hours aboard Air Transat Flight 507 on July 31. They testified Wednesday at a public hearing in Ottawa, part of an inquiry by the Canadian Transportation Agency. (CBC)

Passengers stuck for hours aboard two Air Transat flights stranded on the tarmac at the Ottawa International Airport last month testified at a public hearing Wednesday that their treatment was "deplorable."

The hearing into the ordeal, which is being conducted by the Canadian Transportation Agency, began Wednesday morning in Ottawa.

The flights, from Brussels and Rome to Montreal, were diverted to Ottawa on July 31 due to poor weather. After landing, passengers were kept aboard the planes for up to six hours without air conditioning, food or water.

The situation became so dire some passengers called 911 to report an emergency.

Marie-Hélène Tremblay, a passenger on flight TS507 from Rome, told the quasi-judicial panel she saw flight attendants get off the plane and take selfies while passengers sweltered in the cabin for five hours.

She said what little food was available on the plane was offered to "club class" passengers, who pay extra to carry on extra bags and receive "personalized service," according to Air Transat's website.

Passenger Patricia Abraham witnessed a child throwing up on passengers in the aisle on Air Transat flight 507 from Rome. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Other passengers on the flight from Rome said they were told they couldn't leave the plane because customs agents wouldn't allow it, and that no portable staircases were available anyway.

"I felt like we were luggage," said Alan Abraham. "They didn't care what condition we got there in."

Both Tremblay and Abraham told the inquiry that airlines need better communication and emergency food and water stocks during to deal with such emergencies. They also want financial compensation for what happened to them.

Air Transat has offered to give each passenger aboard the Brussels flight $400 because the air conditioning malfunctioned, in what the company called "a gesture of good faith." 

Airport authority passes blame

Since the passengers' ordeal, the airline and airport have squabbled over who was to blame.

Ottawa International Airport Authority CEO Mark Laroche told the inquiry Tuesday afternoon that Air Transat was being misleading when it blamed the airport for not bringing stairs and fuel to the planes.

The airport authority is not in charge of many of the problems at the heart of this inquiry.- Mark Laroche

Laroche said those responsibilities are part of the agreement between the airline and its ground contractors, and that the airport doesn't have staff trained to fulfill them.

"The airport authority is not in charge of many of the problems at the heart of this inquiry," he said.

However, questions from Air Transat lawyer Madeleine Renaud to both Laroche and other airport authority witnesses led them to reveal they had helped a Dutch plane try to get a fuel truck by passing along information — something they would have done if Air Transat or its ground contractors had made the same request.

"We will try to assist [if asked]. That does not mean we take responsibility," Laroche said.

Laroche also said the airport had little notice that it would be taking in around 6,000 passengers on 20 redirected flights, due to storms around both Montreal's and Toronto's airports — a number he called unusually high.

However, gates were available — or could have been found quickly — if some but not all airlines wanted to let passengers off, Laroche said.

Deplaning the passengers from flight TS157 from Brussels, authority witnesses said, would have been reasonable, and they could have processed its passengers through customs in 60 to 90 minutes.

Ottawa International Airport Authority CEO Mark Laroche speaks to reporters Aug. 30, outside an inquiry into delays involving two Air Transat flights. (CBC)

Air Transat questions capacity, organization

Air Transat's lawyers asked the airport authority about the number of planes and people who'd arrived in Ottawa that day, questioning their ability to handle so many people leaving their planes.

The authority said that only two diverted planes were able to leave Ottawa within 90 minutes of landing, while eight sat on the tarmac at least three hours. They couldn't say how many passengers that would have been if they had all left their planes.

The airport authority also said it allowed "more than 10" planes to land at around 5:30 p.m. and they concluded they couldn't handle many more without disrupting aircraft flow — but the airport never reached its maximum capacity.

"You're telling the agency you were in control of the situation?" asked Renaud.

The authority said that in an exceptional situation such as this, they would typically provide a runway and Nav Canada — which provides air traffic control and other navigation services in Canada — would direct flights.

This graphic from Wednesday's inquiry shows the number and location of delayed planes at the Ottawa International Airport on July 31, 2017. (CBC)

Back Thursday

​The two-day hearing will later call on officials from Air Transat, as well as airplane dispatchers and members of the ground crew responsible for refueling aircraft. 

An Air Transat spokesperson told reporters during a break in the hearing that Wednesday's testimony shows the "complexity" of what happened July 31, and again apologized to passengers.

Scott Streiner, the chair of the inquiry, said in his opening remarks that air travel is an integral part of modern life, and said it's possible Air Transat didn't hold up its end of its contract with passengers.

The agency has the power to order the airline to compensate passengers for out-of-pocket expenses, and to take other corrective measures.

The CTA does not have the power to change government policy, however, but public consultations on the broader question of air passengers' rights are expected once Bill C-49, known as the Transportation Modernization Act, is passed.

The two-day hearing continues Thursday morning.