‘It’s a joke!’; Air Transat passengers stranded on Ottawa tarmac to get $400 cheques

Vito Pilieci

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

While other passengers on Air Transat TS157 from Brussels were dealing with panic attacks, difficulty breathing and crying children, Maryanne Zéhil had an added anxiety: She was worried about her furry, four-legged friend, who was locked away in the plane’s cargo hold.

Zéhil describes the scene as pandemonium: After a six-hour delay on the Ottawa airport tarmac on July 31, she says, people were pleading with Air Transat staff members to let them get off the plane. Her frustration had an extra wrinkle, as she inquired about her border collie, Zara.

“It was nightmarish,” the Montrealer said Friday.

“We were trapped and whenever I went to talk to anyone responsible, all they would say is, ‘We cannot do anything,’” she said. “That was not helpful at all. The panic becomes more. … Now that I am here and we’re OK, I know we weren’t dying. But, at that moment we were about two seconds away from a catastrophe.”

With the memory still fresh, Zéhil scoffed Friday at news that Air Transat is offering passengers a $ 400 payment for the experience.

“It’s a joke,” she said. “Come on!”

Zéhil says she’s looking for a full refund from the company for both her and Zara. She said the airline would need to offer her at least $ 4,000 to make things right.

Two Air Transat flights, one from Rome and the other from Brussels (TS157), were among 20 flights diverted to the Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier airport that day because of severe weather.

Passengers were stranded aboard both parked planes for hours.

Passengers on board TS157 started receiving emails from Air Transat on Thursday evening, stating that the company will be mailing cheques for $ 400 as compensation for the ordeal they experienced.

The email makes it clear that Air Transat is not acknowledging any legal responsibility in the matter. The email from the airline states, “We would like to offer you a monetary compensation valued at $ 400 CAD as a bona fide gesture demonstrating our deep empathy. For this purpose, we would be grateful if you could confirm your postal address.”

More 330 passengers endured sweltering conditions while their plane sat for more than six hours on the tarmac at the Ottawa Airport. The aircraft’s air conditioner wasn’t functioning and temperatures outside the plane hit 28 C.

At one point, a passenger phoned 911 on their cellphone, summoning paramedics, police and officials from the Ottawa Airport Authority.

It was after those emergency responders had assessed the passengers and deemed that none of them was suffering from a medical emergency that Zéhil was able to get the attention of someone from the airport. Airport staff ultimately opened the plane’s cargo hatch to check on Zara, who was lonely and thirsty, but otherwise in good health.

Eric Knutsen, associate professor in the faculty of law at Queen’s University, said it appears the airline’s offer of $ 400 is being made as a goodwill gesture to customers.

The $ 400 payment to passengers is being characterized as “compensation” for the incident and not as a settlement offer from the company.

“It’s free money,” said Knutsen. “It looks like no strings attached. Nothing in there looks like it’s saying it’s precluding people’s right to sue.”

Knutsen said, without agreeing to a settlement, the payment comes without strings. Worse case scenario, if a lawsuit or settlement is proposed in the future, the amount that pays out may be reduced by $ 400 for anyone who cashes Air Transat’s cheque.

He also said the value of the cheque seems to mysterious. The company’s “Contract of Carriage,” which spells out its responsibilities to passengers, makes no mention of specific monetary payments for flight delays.

Calls to Air Transat to explain the reasoning behind the compensation and how the company came up with the $ 400 figure were not returned.

The company’s email to affected passengers, continued its statements to date that the situation in Ottawa was beyond its control. It states in its message that due to low fuel levels, the auxiliary generator powering the plane’s air conditioner failed one-hour before departing Ottawa.

“We regret that you had to experience these unpleasant moments aboard one of our planes. … unfortunately, we have no control over such as exceptional situation and can not predict its duration,” reads the email to customers. “As you know, the violent thunderstorms in Montreal forced some 20 aircraft, including Air Transat, to divert their flights to Ottawa awaiting the reopening of the runways at the Montreal-Trudeau airport.”

The Canada Transportation Agency has launched an inquiry into the incident. It will collect evidence about the issues affecting the delay and determine whether the treatment of passengers on the two flights was in line with the airline’s obligations. If it’s determined that the airline did not live up its obligations regarding the passengers, the agency can order corrective measures.

vpilieci@postmedia.com

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