OTTAWA – Air Transat failed its passengers during a sweltering, hours-long ordeal aboard two of its grounded aircraft this summer, a federal agency ruled Thursday as it fined the airline $295,000 and ordered it to cover the out-of-pocket expenses of affected passengers.
The Canadian Transportation Agency said Air Transat broke a tariff agreement with customers that governs when passengers can be let off a flight due to a tarmac delay.
The agency is ordering the airline to tighten its rules about when passengers are allowed off planes during delays, what services it has to provide, and ensure that its pilots actually know the wording in the agreements. It is also ordering the airline to pay $295,000 either to the agency in the form of a fine, or to the passengers themselves.
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The airline said in a statement that it will comply with the agency’s orders, and plans to offer each affected passenger $500, but that compensation will take into consideration anything already paid.
Thursday’s report comes almost four months after the two flights – one from Rome, the other from Brussels – sat on the tarmac in Ottawa for almost five and six hours, respectively, with passengers not allowed to disembark.
One of the two aircraft ran out of fuel during the delay, then lost power, causing the air conditioning system to shut down.
During two days of hearings in August, passengers described how tensions mounted as temperatures rose, a child threw up on board one plane and ultimately a passenger on the Brussels flight called 911, attracting widespread media attention.
A number of people who were on board the planes told the hearings they would have given anything to be allowed to disembark, even if it meant additional delays or a two-hour drive back to Montreal.
Weather caused the two flights to be diverted to Ottawa on July 31, along with about 20 other planes – an incident that appeared to tax airport resources in the national capital to their limit. Fuelling teams, for instance, ran out of fuel on several occasions.
Among the planes was an Airbus 380, the largest to land that day.
The need to find a place to park that Air Emirates flight forced crews to move the two Air Transat planes to the airport taxiway, where they could be neither refuelled nor serviced. As a result, they ended up being among the last planes to be refuelled.
The airline argued it shouldn’t be held liable for what happened, blaming the airport authority and refuellers among others for the delays.
Transportation agency members agreed Air Transat was not solely responsible for the delays, prodding airports, refuelling companies and others involved in getting planes on and off the ground to work harder to avoid a repeat occurrence.
Despite that, the agency said the extraordinary situation didn’t relieve Air Transat from its commitment to its customers.
Air Transat’s tariff agreement with customers is too broad and gives pilots too much discretion about when to let passengers leave an airplane, despite wording that says passengers have the option of disembarking after a 90-minute delay, the report found.
Air Transat was ordered to amend the wording to require passengers to disembark after a delay of four hours, unless there are safety, security, or air traffic control issues that prevent doing so.
The airline is also being ordered to amend its rules to update passengers every 30 minutes, ensure there are working bathrooms and provide medical assistance as needed during long delays.
The passengers aboard the Brussels flight said in a Facebook post that the case shows the need for a passenger bill of rights in Canada to protect air travellers from “the implications of negligent corporate behaviour in the event of unexpected delays.”
The federal government’s proposed air passenger bill of rights, which is stuck in the Senate, would set strict new standards for airlines to follow when flights are cancelled or delayed. Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Thursday that he hoped the Senate would pass the bill by Christmas so new rules could be in effect next year.
Conservatives and independent Liberals in the Senate have raised concerns about aspects of the legislation that also touch on the rail industry.
Sen. Terry Mercer, deputy leader of the independent Liberals, told the Senate last week that “anybody who thinks this piece of legislation is going anywhere fast hasn’t been paying attention to the number of issues that are in this bill.”