Air Transat pilot tells hearing that tarmac delay was lesser of two evils
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, August 31, 2017 9:57AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 31, 2017 5:38PM EDT
OTTAWA -- The captain of one of two Air Transat flights that was forced to sit for hours on a sweltering Ottawa tarmac last month said Thursday he considered keeping passengers aboard the delayed aircraft to be the lesser of two evils.
Scroll down or click here for a recap of the hearing
Allowing passengers to disembark would have only made additional delays more likely, as opposed to the 30 minutes he was repeatedly being told it would take to refuel, Yves Saint-Laurent told Canadian Transportation Agency hearings in Ottawa.
What's more, it would have taken additional hours to get everyone off the plane and then find a fleet of buses to transport them to a hotel for the night or to Montreal, the plane's ultimate destination.
Denis Lussier, who was piloting the other flight, said he, too, was repeatedly told the wait to refuel would only be 30 minutes more. Both pilots cited a series of circumstances beyond their control -- other planes jumping the refuelling queue, as well as delays getting and connecting external power generators -- that only made matters worse.
Saint-Laurent said he would have made different decisions had he known the delay would last more than three hours. Nonetheless, he said, most passengers expressed their gratitude to him after they arrived in Montreal.
"The next day, I saw what I would call the media circus," Saint-Laurent told the hearing.
"I was shocked, surprised because I would say that most of the passengers who left the aircraft in Montreal that night said, 'Thank you."'
Saint-Laurent then paused for several seconds, before quietly saying he had nothing more to add.
Thursday's testimony was the finale of two days of hearings to determine why the two flights -- one from Rome, the other from Brussels -- sat on the tarmac for almost five and six hours, respectively, with passengers not allowed to disembark.
On Wednesday, a number of people who were on board the planes testified that they would have given anything to be allowed off the planes, even if it meant additional delays or a two-hour drive back to Montreal.
One of the two international flights ran out of fuel during the hours-long delay, then lost power, causing the air conditioning system to shut down.
The ensuing heat soon led to mounting tensions, a child throwing up on board and -- ultimately -- a 911 call from a passenger on the Brussels flight.
"When the first responder came to the door and asked me if there was an emergency, I actually thought there was an emergency on another aircraft," said Igor Mazalica, flight director aboard the Brussels plane.
The hearings are aimed at establishing whether Air Transat broke its tariff agreement with customers about when they can be let off a flight due to a tarmac delay -- a rule unfamiliar to the pilots who have final say on whether to unload a plane.
An airline executive said eight flights were delayed on that day for more than three hours, and none of the flights diverted to the national capital decided to unload their aircraft. Yet Air Transat was being singled out, likely because of the 911 call, which attracted media attention, said Christophe Hennebelle, vice-president corporate affairs.
"This is the result of a chain of events, of a domino effect based on the actions of all the players," Hennebelle said. "If there had been better co-ordination and better communication between the players, this might not have happened."
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. The bill would set strict new standards for airlines to follow when flights are cancelled or delayed.
The two flights were diverted to Ottawa due to weather on July 31, along with about 20 other planes in an incident that appears to have taxed airport resources in the national capital to their limit.
Owen Prosser, a ramp co-ordinator who worked the Air Transat flights, said he had never experienced such a mass diversion of planes, calling it a "debacle." Fuelling teams ran out of fuel on several occasions.
Among the planes was an Airbus 380, the largest plane 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.
Normally, refuelling during a diversion takes place on a first-come, first-served basis, said Saint-Laurent, who was flying the aircraft from Rome. He said he saw a number of planes being refuelled even though they landed after his.
Once finally able to refuel, Saint-Laurent said he vented his frustration on a ground crew worker, who threw up their hands, claimed it wasn't their fault, and blamed the airport for issuing an order to fuel other planes first.
The airport has denied ordering special treatment for other planes.
Prosser said the pilot of the plane that ran out of fuel never told him how desperate the situation was, but "he did tell me there was a dog in the (cargo) pit that needed water."
Customs agents opened the cargo hold and provided water to the dog during the delay.
CTV News correspondent Kevin Gallagher is live-tweeting the hearing below. Click on the player above to watch our livestream of the hearing.
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