Hear­ing into two Air Transat flights gone awry

Montreal Gazette - - NAVIGATOR - JOR­DAN PRESS

• Pas­sen­gers trapped aboard two Air Transat jets in Ot­tawa this sum­mer de­scribed hours on end of swel­ter­ing heat, a lack of wa­ter and the stench of vomit in the cabin while flight at­ten­dants were seen out­side tak­ing self­ies.

As a fed­eral agency be­gan hear­ings Wed­nes­day into their or­deal, pas­sen­gers spoke of wide­spread con­fu­sion over the July 31 de­lays — six hours in one case, five in the other.

One wit­ness said she saw flight at­ten­dants out­side on the tar­mac tak­ing pho­to­graphs of them­selves along­side one of the stranded planes.

An­other wit­ness de­scribed a young boy run­ning down the aisle for the toi­lets in the rear of the plane, but vom­it­ing in the aisle and on pas­sen­gers be­fore he could make it to the bath­rooms.

One by one, pas­sen­gers told mem­bers of the Cana­dian Trans­porta­tion Agency, the agency in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dents, that they would have given any­thing to be al­lowed off the planes, even if only to face fur­ther de­lays or long drives home.

They de­scribed feel­ing as if they were be­ing treated like cargo by the air­line, rather than as hu­man be­ings, and ac­cused the car­rier of be­ing more con­cerned about get­ting the planes in the air than it was about the health and safety of its cus­tomers.

“There was no re­lief,” pas­sen­ger Alan Abra­ham told the panel. “I felt like we were lug­gage; they had to get us to Mon­treal no mat­ter what. They didn’t care what con­di­tion we were in.”

The en­su­ing weeks have seen fin­ger-point­ing be­tween the air­line and air­port of­fi­cials in the na­tional cap­i­tal over the in­ci­dent, which is now sub­ject of a class-ac­tion law­suit.

“Air Transat said that it’s the air­port of Ot­tawa, and Ot­tawa air­port says it is Air Transat who didn’t ask for help,” said Blaise Pas­cal Iruti­ngabo, one of the pas­sen­gers who en­dured try­ing con­di­tions dur­ing a six-hour de­lay.

“As a pas­sen­ger, we don’t know who to blame or who to talk to about what hap­pened.”

Wed­nes­day’s tes­ti­mony marked the first of two days of hear­ings into whether the air­line broke its con­tract with pas­sen­gers.

“Air travel is an in­te­gral part of mod­ern life,” said Scott Streiner, chair and CEO of the Cana­dian Trans­porta­tion Agency. “Usu­ally it goes smoothly, but if it doesn’t, pas­sen­gers have rights.”

Se­nior Air Transat of­fi­cials are sched­uled to tes­tify Thurs­day. On Wed­nes­day, Christophe Hen­nebelle, the air­line’s vice-pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate af­fairs, of­fered an apol­ogy to pas­sen­gers, say­ing the hear­ings showed the com­plex­ity of the sit­u­a­tion on July 31.

“We are very aware of the dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion that has been ex­pe­ri­enced by our pas­sen­gers. We have made our apolo­gies for that and we apol­o­gize again,” Hen­nebelle said in a short state­ment to re­porters.

Both planes were bound for Mon­treal — one from Brus­sels, the other from Rome — but were forced to di­vert to Ot­tawa due to weather con­di­tions. They were among about 20 other planes that couldn’t land in Mon­treal or Toronto dur­ing a two-hour win­dow.

The two planes sat on the tar­mac for hours, with the air con­di­tion­ing fail­ing on the Brus­sels flight af­ter it ran out of fuel de­spite declar­ing a fuel emer­gency be­fore land­ing.

Out­door tem­per­a­tures hov­ered around 28 C.

The pas­sen­gers said they were told re­peat­edly they were not al­lowed off the planes be­cause cus­toms agents re­fused to al­low it, even af­ter food and bev­er­ages ran out.

The air­port au­thor­ity said gates were avail­able if Air Transat pi­lots wanted to let pas­sen­gers dis­em­bark and re­jected sug­ges­tions it helped


other planes re­fuel while ne­glect­ing Air Transat.

Air­port au­thor­ity CEO Marc Laroche said the ground ser­vices agency is re­spon­si­ble for stairs to let peo­ple off planes and re­fu­elling ser­vices, ar­gu­ing the air­port is not re­spon­si­ble for the is­sue at the heart of these hear­ings.

“I hope that Air Transat will be clear to ev­ery­one what they are re­spon­si­ble for: They are re­spon­si­ble for re­fu­elling, cater­ing, de­ci­sion to gate or to de­plane, those are their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. I pro­vide the in­fra­struc­ture, the fa­cil­ity, the co-or­di­na­tion cen­tre,” Laroche said.

“I as­sist when asked. I will pro­vide in­for­ma­tion when asked and I will pro­vide what­ever I can do to make the ex­pe­ri­ence as good as pos­si­ble, but that doesn’t mean I am in charge of re­fu­elling.”

Marc Jette, a pas­sen­ger aboard the Brus­sels flight, di­aled 911 for help, a de­ci­sion the agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tor said added to the de­lay in get­ting both planes off the ground.

Jette said his daugh­ters suf­fered night­mares the week af­ter the or­deal, and are now ner­vous about fly­ing again.

The back­drop to the hear­ings is the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed air pas­sen­ger bill of rights, which it hopes to have made law by the end of the year.

Hear­ings on the bill, known as C-49, will start be­fore the House of Com­mons of­fi­cially re­sumes sit­ting af­ter its sum­mer break.


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