Passengers who were trapped aboard two Air Transat jets earlier this summer described hours on end of sweltering heat, a lack of water and the stench of vomit in the cabin as a federal agency began hearings Wednesday into their ordeal.
One witness said she saw flight attendants outside on the Ottawa tarmac taking selfies alongside one stranded plane amid widespread confusion over the July 31 delays – six hours in one case, five in the other.
Another witness described a young boy running down the aisle for the toilets in the rear of the plane, but vomiting in the aisle and on passengers before he could make it to the bathrooms.
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One by one, passengers told members of the Canadian Transportation Agency, the agency 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.
They described feeling treated like cargo by the airline, rather than as human beings and accused the carrier of being more concerned about getting the planes in the air than it was about the health and safety of its customers.
“There was no relief,” passenger Alan Abraham told the panel. “I felt like we were luggage; they had to get us to Montreal no matter what. They didn’t care what condition we were in.”
The ensuing weeks have seen finger-pointing between the airline and airport officials in the national capital over the incident, which is now subject of a class-action lawsuit.
Prior to the hearings, an investigator’s report found multiple areas of dispute between the airline, the airport and the private operator that provides ground services in Ottawa, a common situation at Canadian airports.
In Ottawa, the contract with the provider, First Air, doesn’t include any service standards.
“Air Transat said that it’s the airport of Ottawa, and Ottawa airport says it is Air Transat who didn’t ask for help,” said Blaise Pascal Irutingabo, one of the passengers who endured trying conditions during a six-hour delay.
“As a passenger, we don’t know who to blame or who to talk to about what happened.”
Wednesday’s testimony marked the first of two days of hearings into whether the airline broke its contract with passengers.
“Air travel is an integral part of modern life,” said Scott Steiner, chair and CEO of the agency. “Usually it goes smoothly, but if it doesn’t, passengers have rights.”
Senior Air Transat officials are scheduled to testify Thursday. On Wednesday, Christophe Hennebelle, the airline’s vice-president of corporate affairs offered an apology to passengers, saying the hearings showed the complexity of the situation on July 31.
“We are very aware of the difficult situation that has been experienced by our passengers. We have made our apologies for that and we apologize again,” Hennebelle said in a short statement to reporters.
Both planes were originally bound for Montreal – one from Brussels, the other from Rome – but were forced to divert to Ottawa due to weather conditions. They were among about 20 other planes that couldn’t land in Montreal or Toronto during a two-hour window .
The two planes sat on the tarmac for hours, with the air conditioning failing on the Brussels flight after it ran out of fuel despite declaring a fuel emergency before landing.
Outdoor temperatures hovered around 28 C.
The passengers said they were told repeatedly that they were not allowed off the planes because customs agents refused to allow it, even after food and beverages ran out.
The airport authority said gates were available if Air Transat pilots wanted to let passengers disembark and rejected suggestions that it helped other planes refuel while neglecting Air Transat.
Airport authority CEO Marc Laroche said the ground services agency is responsible for stairs to let people off planes and refuelling services, arguing the airport is not responsible for the issue at the heart of these hearings.
“I hope that Air Transat will be clear to everyone what they are responsible for: They are responsible for refuelling, catering, decision to gate or to deplane, those are their responsibilities. I provide the infrastructure, the facility, the co-ordination centre,” Laroche said.
“I assist when asked. I will provide information when asked and I will provide whatever I can do to make the experience as good as possible, but that doesn’t mean I am in charge of refuelling.”
Marc Jette, a passenger aboard the Brussels flight, dialled 911 for help, a decision that the agency’s investigator said added to the delay in getting both planes off the ground.
Jette said his daughters suffered nightmares the week after the ordeal, and are now nervous about flying again.
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.
Hearings on the bill, known as C-49, will start before the House of Commons officially resumes sitting after its summer break.
How the airline industry must respond to tarmac delays is not the focus of those hearings and instead will be dealt with after Parliament approves the government’s legislation.