Democracy Dies in Darkness

Gridlock

On a tarmac in Canada: Hours of delay, rationed food and finally 911 calls

By Avi Selk

August 1, 2017 at 10:26 PM

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Passengers on board an Air Transat flight were left stranded at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. (Twitter/Brice de Schietere)

More than 300 passengers aboard Air Transat Flight 157 had been sitting for hours on the tarmac at Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport on Monday evening when one of them managed to get ahold of a national news station from her seat in the hot, unlighted cabin.

"They only rationed the food to give little snacks to the kids," Laura Mah told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News, which filmed ambulances circling the plane during its six-hour wait on the airfield.

The power and air conditioning had gone out midway through the delay, Mah told the station. "We've got the doors open and one kid is puking, and people are just losing their minds."

At least one of them had already called 911.

The plane wasn't even supposed to be there. Destined for Montreal, thunderstorms diverted the flight from Brussels and many others to Ottawa.

As a result, Transat said in a statement, the airport was so jammed with planes that ground crew "were unable to provide with loading bridges or stairs" to let passengers off — nor could they "replenish the aircraft's empty drinking water reservoir."

Twenty flights and thousands of passengers were diverted to the airport during the storm, spokeswoman Krista Kealey told The Washington Post.

"Most of which left quite seamlessly," she said, "with the exception of the Transat flight."

It landed just after 5 p.m., she said, so low on fuel that the engine and air conditioning eventually shut off.

According to the airport, ground workers were standing by with water, food and diapers for any plane that requested them.

But Flight 157 never did, Kealey said.

"They were attempting to get in touch with the airline to deplane, with no response," she told The Post.

A Transat spokeswoman apologized to passengers but said the airport's version of events was inconsistent with the airline's and that Transat would continue to investigate.

"About 9 p.m., we started hearing there were medical emergencies onboard," Kealey said. Paramedics finally boarded with bottles of water, she added.

"It was apparent there was an extreme amount of heat."

A spokesman for Ottawa Police Services told The Post that 911 dispatchers quickly determined there was no real emergency on board.

Not that conditions were ideal by any means.

They were told this again and again, the station reported — all evening, with the eventual addendum that "there was only enough food for children."

Brice de Schietere, who wrote that he was a diplomat from Brussels, documented the misery in a triptych of video clips:

9:05 p.m.: The cabin on Flight 157 is completely dark. A man asks over the loudspeaker for "votre patience," drawing a chorus of deep groans.

"The truck just arrived with the fuel," the man says.

9:34 p.m.: The lights are on now, and people stand in the aisle, one fanning himself with what appears to be an in-flight brochure.

"Heat unbearable," Schietere writes, after nearly five hours on the tarmac. "Medical staff on board … When do you deplane us?"

The man on the loudspeaker asks everyone to take their seats. Flight crew are trying to open some doors, he says.

10:19 p.m.: The plane has not moved. Outside, news crews film the flashing lights of ambulances.

Loudspeaker: "The person who called 911 from this aircraft … please present yourself."

Kealey, the airport authority spokeswoman, said the worst anyone suffered was a headache — along with what the airport described as a "frantic passenger" with a dog in the cargo hold, to whom border agents helped provide water.

The temperature onboard dropped after the plane was aired out, Kealey said, and it finally took off for Montreal at 11 p.m. — six hours after landing.

What exactly kept it there so long, Kealey said, was still "a bit of a mystery."

This story has been updated.

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Avi Selk is an American-Canadian nomad. He reported for the Dallas Morning News from 2009 until December 2016, when he joined the general assignment desk.

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