Air Transat defends actions at stranded passenger inquiry

Air Transat says it was focused on avoiding logistical and financial challenges the night passengers aboard two of its flights ended up stranded on the tarmac of the Ottawa International Airport for hours.

Flight and ground crews describe confusion, frustration of July 31

Air Transat employees wait to testify at a Canadian Transportation Agency inquiry on Aug. 31, 2017, after passengers aboard two of the airlines' planes were stranded for hours on the tarmac of the Ottawa International Airport last month. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Air Transat says it was focused on avoiding logistical and financial challenges the night passengers aboard two of its flights ended up stranded on the tarmac of the Ottawa International Airport for hours.

The inquiry into the passengers' ordeal began Wednesday morning and is being overseen by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

It was announced shortly after two Air Transat flights from Brussels and Rome were diverted from Montreal to Ottawa on July 31 because of poor weather.

After landing, passengers were kept aboard the planes for up to six hours, in some cases without air conditioning, food or water. Some resorted to calling 911.

'No intention to remain in Ottawa'

Air Transat flight safety director Matthew Jackson testified Thursday he was working in the airline's operations centre that night when "all hell broke loose."

The airline was focused on getting passengers on the planes to their final destination, he said, not on finding a gate to get off the plane, which would have necessitated a crew change and kept the plane from continuing onwards.

It would have been a logistical and financial challenge — but not an impossibility — to stop in Ottawa, he said, adding that it would have taken hours to arrange hotels, and that they kept being told they'd get fuel in 15 to 30 minutes.

'I'm not deplaning on a runway for fun'

Had passengers gotten out on the taxiway or runway, it would have been classified as an emergency and the airport would have shut down, Jackson said.

"The only way I'm going to let 360 people out on a runway is if … I have a fire onboard the aircraft or a bomb threat," he said.

"I'm not deplaning on a runway for fun."

He didn't receive any request for water or snacks for those planes, he added, saying their policy is to keep the doors closed unless something is coming in and out.

Air Transat flight safety director Matthew Jackson testifies at a Canadian Transportation Agency hearing in Ottawa on Aug. 31. (CBC)

Crew disputes allegations

The pilot and flight director of flight TS507 from Rome both said they didn't consider deplaning or requesting more food since they were repeatedly told they were 30 minutes away from refuelling.

Pilot Yves Saint-Laurent, who lives in Ottawa, said he would have tried to get passengers off the plane if he knew delays would be more than 90 minutes.

He said he thought waiting for fuel was a lesser evil, as it could have taken five to six hours for everyone to get off the plane, get onto buses and get through customs.

Besides, Saint-Laurent said, no passengers asked him to get off. Flight director Julie Clermont said the same thing.

TS507 eventually spent five hours on the Ottawa airport's tarmac, with passengers telling the hearing there was no air conditioning on board and people were throwing up from the heat and anxiety.

Saint-Laurent said the air conditioning was working for all but a minute or two when they were on the ground. He was surprised to see the media attention the next day, since most of the passengers thanked him as they left the plane in Montreal.

Clermont also said it wasn't too warm and noted the washrooms were always working.

Denis Lussier, the pilot of Air Transat flight TS157, testifies at a Canadian Transportation Agency inquiry in Ottawa on Aug. 31, 2017, as flight director Igor Mazalica looks on. (CBC)

Brussels pilot, flight director also testify

The inquiry also heard Thursday from both the pilot and flight director of flight TS157 from Brussels, which was stuck on the Ottawa airport tarmac for roughly six hours — even longer than the Rome flight.

Pilot Denis Lussier said TS157 was short on fuel when it landed, and he told the airline's ground contractor, First Air Operations, that he was concerned about running out of fuel and losing power.

Like the Rome flight, Lussier said he was also told fuel was half an hour away.

Eventually, the power did shut off, taking the air conditioning with it. Lussier said a passenger called 911, although the caller said he wanted to continue on to Montreal rather than disembarking in Ottawa.

I also believe we did everything that we could with the resources on board .... for the comfort of the passengers.- TS157 flight director Igor Mazalica

In fact, said Lussier, he got the sense most passengers wanted to remain on the aircraft.

About three hours after requesting fuel, it finally arrived, Lussier said.

Both Lussier and flight director Igor Mazalica said they would have done things differently if they had been given a more accurate estimate as to how long it would take to get fuel.

"If it was a different situation where I could deplane, and I could deal with lack of snacks or anything like that, then I would've made that call," Mazalica said.

"I also believe we did everything that we could with the resources on board ... for the comfort of the passengers."

Ground crew wasn't asked for supplies

On Day 1 of the hearing, the Ottawa International Airport Authority said many of the issues that caused problems July 31 were the responsibility of the airline and its ground contractors, neither of which asked the authority for help.

Carol Clark from First Air Operations said Thursday there were "irregular operations" on July 31, but staffing levels were more suitable for a normal day.

She said First Air Operations weren't asked for food or water for those two Air Transat planes.

"From what I can tell, we were assuming there was enough water on the airplane. If not, water would have been granted," she said.

Carol Clark from First Air, the ground contractor for Air Transat in Ottawa, said they would have gotten food and water to the two longest-delayed planes if they'd known how little there was on board. (CBC)

Clark said ground crews couldn't service the planes, first because they were on the taxiway and later because they'd been moved far away from their equipment for refuelling.

The fuel company kept telling them they would soon get fuel, Clark said, calling the situation a "creeping delay."

Treatment was 'deplorable'

On the first day of the inquiry, flyers testified that Air Transat's handling of the situation was "deplorable" and that they were treated like "luggage."

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

This hearing focuses on whether or not Air Transat followed its "tariff," or agreement with passengers, which is supposed to allow them to get off planes that have spent 90 minutes on the ground.

Emergency crews surround an Air Transat flight that sat for hours at the Ottawa airport July 31. (Stephane Beaudoin/CBC)

Clermont, TS507's flight director, said she wasn't aware of the tariff. Saint-Laurent, the pilot, said it wasn't included in his training.

The agency can order Air Transat to compensate passengers for out-of-pocket expenses and take other corrective measures.

Air Transat has already offered to give each passenger aboard the Brussels flight $400 after the air conditioning malfunctioned. 

'Domino effect' 

Christophe Hennebelle, Air Transat's vice-president of human resource and corporate affairs, told reporters that the "unprecedented" events of July 31 were the result of a cascading "domino effect" of miscommunication.

"I think what needs to be achieved in the future is better information sharing between all the actors, so that the captains have the appropriate information that allows them to make the right call," Hennebelle said.

Air Transat currently has no plan to extend compensation to the Rome flight's passengers, Hennebelle added.

Christophe Hennebelle, Air Transat's vice-president of human resource and corporate affairs, told reporters that the "unprecedented" events of July 31 were the result of a cascading "domino effect" of miscommunication. (CBC)