Workers from Ottawa aviation firm First Air detail ‘debacle’ of Air Transat delays

Fuel
Stock image, for illustrative purposes only.

Ground crews working two Air Transat flights that faced high-profile tarmac delays this summer say the pilots didn't tell them, nor were they aware, of imminent fuel needs aboard one of the aircraft, nor were they asked for water for the passengers.

One of the two international flights ran out of fuel during the hours-long delay, causing a shutdown of the air conditioning system, leading to rising cabin temperatures, a child vomiting before making it to the aircraft bathrooms, tensions over lack of water and, ultimately, a 911 call from one of the passengers.

Representatives from Kanata-based First Air, the ground handlers for Air Transat at the Ottawa airport, say they did order fuel, but it wasn't possible to get it to the aircraft because they were parked on the taxiway at the far end of the airport.

Owen Prosser, a First Air ramp co-ordinator who worked the Air Transat flights, says the pilot of the plane that ran out of fuel never told him how desperate the situation was.

"I never received any phone calls from the captains," Prosser said.

"He never told me he needed fuel. He did tell me there was a dog in the (cargo) pit that needed water."

Customs agents opened the cargo hold and gave the dog water during the delay.

The testimony came at the start of the second day of hearings into the delays, in which two Air Transat flights sat on the tarmac for almost five and six hours, respectively, with passengers not allowed to disembark.

The ensuing weeks have seen finger-pointing between the airline and airport officials over the incident, which is now subject of a class-action lawsuit. The Canadian Transportation Agency is holding hearings to determine whether Air Transat broke its tariff agreement with customers aboard the flight.

Pilot testimony

The captain of one of two Air Transat flights that was forced to sit for hours said he considered keeping passengers aboard the delayed aircraft to be the lesser of two evils.

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.

The two Montreal-bound 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.

Prosser says he has 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.

Yesterday, passengers told members of the Canadian Transportation Agency, which is 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.

Carol Clark, director of commercial operations for First Air, told the hearing that the flights would have been "terminated" had the pilots decided to let the passengers disembark, forcing them to stay overnight in a hotel or travel to Montreal by bus.