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 is ordering the airline to tighten its rules about when passengers are allowed off planes during delays, ensure there are working bathrooms, provide medical services when needed, and ensure its pilots know the wording in the tariff agreements.
The airline will pay $295,000 to the 590 passengers who were aboard the two flights, over and above their out-of-pocket expenses incurred because of the delay. The payments have to be made by late May.
Thursday's report comes 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.
It is now being used in a political game over the fate of a government bill to create an air passenger bill of rights that would set strict new standards for airlines to follow when flights are cancelled or delayed.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Thursday he hoped the Senate would pass the bill by Christmas so new rules could be in effect next year, but Conservatives and independent Liberals have raised concerns about the legislation that also touches 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."
Among the issues for senators are provisions to require recorders in locomotives and why the bill punts development of passenger rights rules to the transportation agency.
"This stuff has to be fleshed out," said Sen. Michael MacDonald, the Conservative critic on the bill.
"Governments can ram through stuff in their own committees in a day or two — and they do it a lot, perhaps too often — but it's not the same thing over here."
The passenger bill of rights was a recurring theme after the July 31 incident when one of the two aircraft ran out of fuel and lost power, shutting down the air conditioning system. 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.
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. The airline argued it shouldn't be held liable for what happened.
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.
However, the agency said the extraordinary situation didn't relieve Air Transat from its commitment to customers. The agency ordered the airline to rewrite the tariff agreement by late February to require passengers to disembark after a four-hour delay, unless there are safety, security, or air traffic control issues, and require crews to update passengers every 30 minutes.
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."
Vanessa Baratta, a passenger aboard the Rome flight, said she hoped the ruling would ensure "no one has to go through the same deplorable experience as we have."
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