While passengers sat for hours aboard two grounded Air Transat planes last month – stranded in the oppressive heat of a cabin reeking of vomit with no air conditioning, beverages or food – ground crews working the flights were never asked to bring water or snacks for passengers, members of a federal inquiry into the ordeal heard on Thursday.
Two international Air Transat flights sat on the tarmac last month in Ottawa for five and six hours, respectively, without allowing passengers to disembark.
The experience of the conditions on board the grounded flights, however, was a “matter of perception,” said Matthew Jackson, the director of flight safety for Air Transat, when asked whether the pilots were aware of how passengers were feeling.
“If I’m managing a delay and I’m talking to a passenger who’s a very nervous flyer, a 15-minute delay may be a terrible thing for that passenger,” Jackson told the hearing. “Their perception is different than the frequent flyer … who’s used to delays.”
WATCH: Passengers descr”be “deplorable” conditions on nightmare Air Transat flights
The flight safety director further suggested the pilots might have even been hotter than some passengers on account of the polyester uniforms they wear.
“I’m not traveling in shorts and sandals and a T-shirt,” he said. “So I think I would probably feel the heat a little bit more than some travellers.”
Running out of fuel
One of the Air Transat flights was, unbeknownst to the Ottawa airport ground crew, almost out of fuel after a few hours of idling on the taxiway. Once the fuel supply was exhausted, the air conditioning system shut down and the temperature inside the packed cabin rose. Subsequently, a child threw up before making it to the lavatories.
“I never received any calls from the captains,” said Owen Prosser, a ramp services coordinator with First Air Operations, the ground handlers for Air Transat at the Ottawa airport.
Carol Clark, director of ground services with First Air Operations, told the Canadian Transport Agency they ordered fuel, but they couldn’t get it to either aircraft because both were on a taxiway at the other end of the airport.
Why either flight waited hours before ground crews refueled them – which also required equipment beyond a fuel truck – is one of the questions at the centre of this inquiry.
Ever since both Montreal-bound flights – one originating in Rome, the other in Brussels – were grounded on July 31, airline and airport officials have been deflecting blame to one another.
WATCH: Air Transat passengers trapped on plane stuck on tarmac for 6 hours
The federal agency launched hearings in an effort to determine whether Air Transat honoured its tariff agreement with customers aboard the flight.
Airline officials testifying at the hearings, including pilots and flight directors (the top member of the in-cabin crew), said they were told to expect refuelling within 30 minutes. When the first 30 minutes passed, they were told it would be another 30 minutes, and so on until hours had passed.
Twenty other planes, among them an Airbus 30, were diverted to Ottawa due to weather that same day.
Parking that Airbus 30 forced the two Air Transat flights to the taxiway.
Wanting off the plane
It was only a matter of time before passengers started expressing an interest in getting off the plane.
During Wednesday’s testimony, passengers told officials they would have given anything to be allowed off the planes, even if only to face further delays or long drives home.
Jackson, Air Transat’s flight safety director, said there was almost no way to accomplish that safely.
“The only way I’m going to let 360 people out on the runway is … because I have a fire on board the aircraft or a bomb threat,” he said. “I’m not deplaning on a runway for fun.”
Either way, Jackson said, there wasn’t a conversation among airline officials about getting the passengers off the planes; the goal was to get the 360 passengers, and the jets, to the final destination in Montreal.
Finding hotels for all the displaced passengers and securing buses for transportation to Montreal would have been a challenge, he said.
Lesser of two evils
The captain of one of two flights said he considered keeping passengers aboard the delayed aircraft to be the lesser of two evils.
Yves Saint-Laurent testified that he decided to keep passengers on the plane because he believed allowing them to disembark would have caused hours of additional delay, as opposed to the 30 minutes he was repeatedly told it would take to refuel.
Those hours would have been taken up with first getting everyone off the plane, then finding buses to transport them to a hotel for the night or to Montreal.
Normally, refuelling during a diversion takes place on a first-come, first-served basis, explained Saint-Laurent. However, he said he saw a number of planes being refuelled even though they landed after his.
The airport has denied ordering special treatment for other planes.
The hearing heard Thursday that the flights would have been “terminated” had the pilots decided to let the passengers disembark, forcing everyone to either stay overnight in a hotel or travel to Montreal by bus.
WATCH: Who’s to blame for the Air Transat “nightmare” in Ottawa?
Air Transat’s Rules
The CTA has the option to fine Air Transat for violating its own international tariffs (terms and conditions).
Rule 5.2 of Air Transat’s international tariff requires the airline to:
- Provide drinks and snacks if there is a delay onboard.
- Offer passengers the option to leave the plane if the delay exceeds 90 minutes.
- Provide meal vouchers if the flight is delayed more than four hours.
Failing to comply with the obligations is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 under the Canadian Transportation Agency Designated Provisions Regulations.
A spokesperson from Air Transat said the company will not comment until the hearing is over.
-With files from The Canadian Press