Air Transat

Passenger rights group challenges Air Transat penalty for “inhumane” delay

An Air Transat Airbus A321 departs Vancouver on a flight to Mexico March 2, 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

A Canadian passenger rights group will be in a Halifax court Thursday to challenge a $295,000 fine given to Air Transat for leaving 590 passengers in “inhumane” and “horrendous” conditions aboard two planes forced to divert to Ottawa in July 2017 because of bad weather.

“What we are dealing with is one of Canada’s worst non-accidental airline incidents,” said Gabor Lukacs, the founder of Air Passenger Rights which launched the lawsuit in federal court. “Air Transat was given a slap on the wrist, and then even the slap on the wrist was waved.”

Passengers were kept on board for up to five hours and 51 minutes without adequate food, water, and under deteriorating conditions “including high temperatures, limited ventilation, limited air conditioning, poor lighting, and passengers becoming physically ill,” as the Canadian Transportation Agency, the airline regulator, found after hearing from upset passengers.

In one case, passengers called 911 when the lights and air conditioning went out.

The flights from Rome and Brussels were bound for Montreal, but were forced to divert by bad weather. The CTA ruled Transat couldn’t help the weather, but should still have been able to abide by its own rules to provide snacks and water during the ensuing delays and let passengers off the plane.

The levied fine amounts to $500 per passenger, well below the legal maximum of $10,000. The amount was then reduced by compensation Air Transat paid directly to the affected passengers.

Lukacs wants the issue sent back so the CTA can reassess the penalties. He’s also asking the court to force the CTA to levy fines over and above any compensation paid to individual passengers.

“They should have compensated the passengers and paid the fine,” said Lukacs, “not one in place of the other.

“This is a significant determination for air passengers and air carriers,” said CTA chair Scott Streiner in a statement at the time of the decision. “It underscores that passengers have rights and recourse when their air travel is disrupted, and that even when problems stem from events such as bad weather, there is a minimum standard of treatment to which all passengers are entitled.”

The agency declined to comment about the lawsuit.

Air Transat expressed regret for the incident but blamed delays on ground crews in Ottawa unable to cope with the unexpected arrival of 20 large flights and thousands of passengers diverted from Montreal and Toronto.

“We had accepted the decision at the time,” wrote Air Transat’s Vice-President of Human Resources and Corporate Affairs Christophe Hennebelle in an e-mail response to Western Aviation News. “We have since then taken all necessary measures to comply with the CTA requirements and avoid the repetition of the events that occurred on July 31, 2017. We do not have any comment on the pending case.”

The real issue, said Lukacs, is whether the penalties are tough enough to deter other airlines from leaving passengers in similar conditions.

A Sunwing Airlines Boeing 737-800 departs Vancouver March 4, 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

In April 2018, hundreds of Sunwing passengers were left waiting on board aircraft and in the terminal when freezing rain paralyzed operations at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Almost 600 passengers lodged formal complaints about their treatment, and the CTA launched an investigation.

In a submission defending its actions to the CTA, Sunwing argued it committed only “minimal breaches” of the rules, despite having an ambulance and police called to help stranded passengers off one of the delayed flights.

While the circumstances differ between the Sunwing and Air Transat cases, Lukacs argues the real issue is how airlines treat their passengers when things go wrong.

“The issue here is this: will there be any consequences for keeping passengers like cattle on an aircraft?” asked Lukacs. “It’s unthinkable. It’s a fiasco.”