Executives from Canada’s top airlines and major airports are being questioned in Ottawa Thursday on the holiday travel chaos that brought planes and passengers to a standstill.
That includes Tamara Vrooman, the CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed the week before Christmas at Vancouver International Airport (YVR), thousands of travellers found themselves delayed or rebooked and many were separated from their luggage.
Passengers were stuck on planes on YVR’s tarmac for hours, some more than 13 hours, and passengers ended up sleeping on the airport’s floor with nowhere to go and no way to get home.
Vrooman said the airport authority paid for more than 400 rooms for up to four nights for 580 passengers so they did not have to sleep in the airport.
Staff also set up a care and comfort area in the airport where passengers could access cots, blankets and showers and they handed out food, water, hygiene products and baby formula.
Going forward, she said, there will be more communication with airlines around gating and towing and she said communication with passengers will be improved as well.
“I am confident that we made the right decisions to keep passengers safe during that week,” Vrooman said. “However, I also believe that passengers spent an unacceptable amount of time on YVR’s tarmac, particularly overnight on Dec. 20.”
“I’m pretty shocked at YVR’s preparedness for something like this,” passenger Sanad Aridah, who sat on an Air Canada flight for more than 10 hours, told Global News. “Particularly because we kind of knew this weather condition was coming about a week in advance.”
Read more: ‘Colossal mishap’: Passengers describe sitting on planes at Vancouver airport for hours amid snowstorm
Taylor Bachrach, MP for the riding of Skeena—Bulkley Valley, questioned Vrooman at the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities Thursday, asking if an emergency action plan should have been implemented to get those passengers off the plane.
Vrooman said full irregular operations and emergency operations were in place at the airport from Dec. 18 to Dec. 27
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“The number one priority was to work with airlines, to work with ground crews to get those passengers safely off as soon as possible,” she said.
“That effort requires the coordination and the capability to tow aircraft. The airport authority does not have that authority nor that capability, nor that responsibility. That is the responsibility of airlines. So we rely on airlines through their contracted ground-handling crew to move aircraft off gates.”
Vrooman said they did have buses and air stairs ready to go but it was deemed too unsafe to have passengers disembark when the aircraft field was so busy and the weather was so bad.
“We evaluated that decision on an hourly basis until conditions improved,” she added.
Todd Doherty, MP for Cariboo—Prince George was also stuck on a plane at YVR in December. He said he and his wife were stuck for four and a half hours.
“I was one of the fortunate ones,” he said.
Doherty said they were held on the aircraft due to the fact that the airport had run out of de-icing fluid.
Vrooman told the committee that “at no point” did the airport run out of de-icing fluid but maybe a truck did have to go and refuel.
She said it was unacceptable that the delays for passengers were so long and that’s why changes have been made that require aircraft can only be at a gate for a short amount of time and must demonstrate to the airport that they have tow capacity.
She added the airport did prioritize snow clearing but that actually caused some issues for baggage handlers and that the airlines had “capacity constraints” that prevented them from towing aircraft to the gates.
“Of course, the priority was to get those passengers off the planes as soon as possible but we did have a weather event here, which meant it was difficult for some staff, ground-handling staff, to get into the airport. That is an area that struggles with retention of labour and we already had maximum overtime hours being recorded across our seven contracted ground handlers.”
She said this made it difficult to tow aircraft in a timely way.
Bachrach asked Vrooman if YVR plans for snow events, such as the one that occurred in December.
When the snow fell on Nov. 29, Vrooman said the airport remained operational the entire time, except for the north runway when an EVA aircraft was stopped for a short period of time.
“We do stress test against those forecasts, we discuss those forecasts with our airport community, which includes carriers, which includes CATSA, CBSA, all of those that come together to discuss the forecast and we adjust.”