I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 46 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Thursday, February 3, 2022, the committee is meeting to discuss Air Passenger Protection Regulations.
Today’s meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of Thursday, June 23, 2022. Members are attending in person in the room and remotely using the Zoom application.
Members of the committee, appearing before us today as witnesses from Air Canada, we have Mr. Kevin O'Connor, vice-president of system operations control, and Mr. David Rheault, vice-president of government and community relations. Both are appearing by video conference.
Also by video conference, we have from Sunwing Mr. Len Corrado, president, as well as Mr. Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations with the Sunwing Travel Group.
Appearing from WestJet Airlines in person, we have Mr. Andrew Gibbons, vice-president of external affairs, as well as Mr. Scott Wilson, vice-president of flight operations.
I would like to begin by thanking our witnesses in advance for their time today.
I also thank the members of this committee for the reference to ensure not only that this meeting took place, but that it took place as quickly as possible. It is my hope as chair that this meeting and the subsequent meetings will provide the answers that Canadians and this committee are looking for, and that actions can subsequently be taken to ensure that the experiences faced by travellers over the holidays never happen again.
With that, I would like to turn it over to Air Canada for opening remarks.
Air Canada, the floor is yours. You have five minutes.
I thank the committee for inviting us here today to talk about Air Canada's operations over the holiday season.
I am pleased to be accompanied by Kevin O'Connor, vice-president of system operations control. Kevin is responsible for the operations at Air Canada.
First, let me say that all of us at Air Canada sincerely sympathize with customers whose travel has been disrupted. We understand the importance of travel during the holiday season and the disappointment people feel when things don't go as planned.
More than 2 million people travelled with Air Canada during the period from December 22 to January 8. Most importantly, they did so safely.
It was the dedication of our 35,000 employees, more than during the same period in 2019, that allowed us to transport our customers and restore our operations quickly following the weather events. On behalf of Air Canada, I want to acknowledge their exceptional work, which was often done in very difficult conditions, in the cold and the storm. I thank them for taking care of our passengers.
Kevin will now give you a main overview of our main challenges and accomplishments.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
Air Canada went through the holidays very well prepared. We were fully staffed, our people were trained and our schedule was prudent. We also had a great deal of resiliency built in. As an example, we set aside 15 aircraft—including wide-body aircraft—that were not scheduled to fly, but could be used for recovery or redundancy.
As a result, we operated nearly 1,000 daily flights on average. An Air Canada plane took off almost every 90 seconds of every day of the holidays, and we did this despite the extreme weather.
How extreme was it? In Vancouver, four-foot icicles formed on aircraft and bridges, making it almost impossible to move customers. In Calgary, at one point, it got so cold that de-icing fluid was not able to be used to remove contamination. In Toronto, certain airport baggage systems started to freeze.
Across the continent, we faced the types of delays and slowdowns familiar to anyone who travels in harsh winter weather. Because we are a network carrier that operates interconnected flights, severe weather can drastically impact our schedule and our movement of people and their baggage.
A delay in one part of the country has a knock-on effect across our network. For example, aircraft can be scheduled to fly from Toronto to Calgary in the morning, then on to Vancouver, and then to a southern destination later that day. However, if it is held up by weather in one place, it is late for its next flight, or its final flights may be cancelled if the crews go over their legislated duty day.
In such situations, we prioritize international flights, which are more difficult to recover because of the long flight times. Overall, we operated 98% of our international flights during the holiday period. Our ground operations can also be affected, because the employees' work schedules are tied to the planned operating schedule. This in part accounts for misconnected and delayed baggage.
We move bags parallel with our customers, but if a flight is delayed, bags can misconnect. They also accumulate in airports, because our ability to move them on the next flight is limited on those later flights, given that they're full during the holiday period.
Finally, I'll say a word on customer communications. During a storm, with its unknown duration and impact, it's not always possible to immediately re-book customers. We must wait until the weather improves enough that we can assign aircraft and crew. Still, even at the peak of our bad weather—December 23 to December 27—Air Canada re-booked more than 107,000 customers who were affected by flights.
We also implemented a very flexible re-booking policy. We gave refunds and waived fees for our customers who chose not to travel. It's noteworthy, though, that the vast majority of customers chose to not re-book and travelled as planned, even when they understood their travel might be slower than normal.
I'll pass it to you, David.
I would like to conclude this presentation by asking a question that we are all seeking to answer. How can we improve the situation in the future, at least as far as Mother Nature will allow?
First, there has been a lot of talk about the Air Passenger Protection Regulations. As we have done and will continue to do, we comply fully with the regulation obligations. However, recent travel disruptions have been the result of major weather events. There is no protection regime in the world, including the regulations, that requires air carriers to be liable for financial compensation in cases of force majeure.
As well, the air transport system consists of many stakeholders working together to move passengers safely and efficiently. Each entity has an independent role to fulfill to make the system work, but airlines are the only ones with enforceable standards and financial obligations. There needs to be shared accountability.
The government should also take a broader view on policies to support the industry, and invest in and modernize infrastructure. At present, hundreds of millions of dollars are taken from passengers and the industry in taxes, fees and airport rents, and put into general revenue. This money should be reinvested in air transport infrastructure.
We need to move forward with digitization, facility upgrades and other improvements. These would benefit people by making everyday travel easier, and ensuring that the system is robust enough to withstand irregular operations.
Thank you for your attention.
I want to thank the committee for allowing me to appear here today. My name is Len Corrado, and I'm the president of Sunwing Airlines. I'm joined today by Andrew Dawson, president of Sunwing Vacations.
Let me begin by apologizing that we failed to deliver to the level that we had expected to and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season. We had planned that this holiday season would be a return to normal in a postpandemic world for our flying program. We built a robust plan to meet the high demand for travel to sun destinations. While many of our customers enjoyed their holidays with minimal disruption, we had some failures in execution, for which we are very, very sorry.
Three primary issues caused disruption to our schedules. First, several storms severely impacted our operations across the country. This included the virtual shutdown of Vancouver's airport and caused major delays in Ontario and Quebec. These weather events impacted not only our ability to service our customers flying through those airports but also our ability to position the necessary crew to service our own operations at other departure locations due to the cancellation of flights by other carriers impacted by these events.
The second issue was staffing. In anticipation of a busy winter season, Sunwing began recruiting pilots last spring. We went from a low of 40 pilots during the pandemic to over 475 pilots in preparation for our winter flying. Sunwing also applied to hire 63 foreign pilots on a temporary basis to supplement our crewing levels. These pilots would have been based in Regina and Saskatoon, where we run service only during the winter months, as we have since 2007. Unfortunately, our application was unexpectedly rejected. We took action and made alternative arrangements. These included subservicing aircraft into our schedule to make more of our own crew available, rebidding and rebuilding the pilot schedule and bringing subserviced aircraft specifically into that market.
Third, these challenges were compounded by airport infrastructure issues, such as a malfunctioning baggage belt system at Pearson, de-icing fluid shortages in Vancouver and various other issues that affected several carriers.
I would also like to take a moment to share features of our unique business model. Among our customers, 95% are leisure travellers who have purchased their flight as part of a fixed-duration vacation package. You may recall that earlier this summer, other carriers experienced operational challenges as they ramped up to their peak operational season. Uniquely, Sunwing's peak flying occurs in the winter. Our ramp-up coincided with the first of the storms. Unlike traditional airlines, we don't have the flexibility in our network to adjust our schedule and shift passenger itineraries. We almost always have customers waiting in a southern destination with a very fixed timeline to return to Canada, and often on routes where alternate flights do not readily exist.
While many of these factors were out of our control, I want to be clear with this committee and Canadians that our team immediately jumped into action to try to make things right for our customers. We worked around the clock to minimize customer disruptions while recovering our schedule. We provided customers with hotel accommodations, food and beverages, and local support at destinations, all at our expense, regardless of the reason for delay.
With respect to compensation, I want to assure committee members that we fully understand our obligations under Canada's APPR, and we will fully comply with these regulations. We are actively accepting claims for compensation under the APPR. Customers may submit their claims for review at our website.
With respect to passenger communications, we have immediately implemented changes to address some of the technical issues with flight alert notifications to improve communications with our customers.
With all this said, the bottom line is this: We know we could have done better. When even one customer is let down by their experience with our airline, I consider that a failure. We'd like to reassure committee members and Canadians that we are committed to providing the quality of service and experience that they've come to expect from us over the last 20 years.
Thank you for your time. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Good morning, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much to members of this committee for having us here today. My name is Andy Gibbons. I'm the vice-president of external affairs at WestJet. I am joined today by two of my colleagues—Captain Scott Wilson, who is our vice-president of operations, and Jared Mikoch-Gerke, who is our director of government relations and regulatory affairs.
We are here today to take questions on public policy, operations and the APPR. You have questions, and we are here to give you and Canadians answers.
I'd like to begin by speaking directly to our guests who are listening today: We thank you for choosing our company for your travel and thank you for your patience during a period that was stressful to us all.
Our record and success over 26 years is because of you. Everyone in our organization knows this and lives by it. Every single WestJetter feels the weight and anguish of not being able to meet your travel expectations.
I also want to offer a sincere thank you to our incredible WestJetters and contract service providers across the country and our network who worked long hours and extra days and gave up time with their families to support our guests during what was the most challenging winter season experienced in Canada in recent memory. Thank you.
This was a once-in-a-generation event. We experienced record cold and freezing rain driven by winds more typical of a hurricane.
On December 23, Canada's busiest travel day of the year, all but one province received extreme weather advisories. This is not a normal Canadian winter.
WestJet proactively took many additional steps over and above our regulatory obligations to help our guests. We offered a full refund for anyone who wanted to cancel their travel in advance. We offered three nights of hotels at our expense for any guest stranded mid-journey in a connection city. We completely opened our flexible change and cancel guidelines and absorbed hotel cancellation fees for our vacation guests.
Additionally, our corporate and frontline staff stepped in and stepped up to work across our system in service of our guests. We worked with our service partners and labour groups to provide incentives and bonuses to our frontline employees in acknowledgement of the work they were doing in a situation that none of us, or them, created.
Good morning, everyone.
In addition to being vice-president of operations, I'm also the Transport Canada designated representative tasked with ensuring safe operations as WestJet.
Our preparation efforts began early in the fall for this winter's peak season. We held weekly meetings and tracked our preparedness towards the peak. What we could not have foreseen in this preparation was the compounding scale of the weather events that we encountered in our system between December 18 and December 24. In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced disruption that I have experienced.
Canadian air carriers have some of the most significant experience in cold weather and winter operations. Mother Nature, however, always has the ability to show us where our limits are. In our particularly harsh climate and operating environment we will always take the time to ensure the safety of our people and our guests. The most difficult part of making a safe decision is ultimately knowing that it impacts our guests and the travel plans that they've entrusted to us. That notwithstanding, during this peak season, WestJetters worked hard to safely carry over 1.2 million guests and operate a significant number of additional flights in support of recovery operations. We very much regret that we had thousands of guests whom we could not get to their destination for Christmas due to weather disruptions. We were thankfully able to stabilize and recover our operation by December 26, which allowed us to refocus our efforts on providing recovery options for our guests, even as challenging weather conditions continued in many areas across our country.
Given the scale of disruption we just experienced, we recognize that for meaningful improvements to happen, we need a holistic approach that brings together the entire aviation system. Aviation is an ecosystem that relies on the capability of all partners to deliver effectively, reliably and safely.
Thank you very much, Mr. Gibbons.
Thank you very much, Mr. Wilson.
We'll now begin our line of questioning.
I'd like to point out to members that I'll try to be as diligent as I can today and as strict as possible with the time, as I know that we all have questions. At the five-minute, six-minute or two-and-a-half-minute mark, I will be cutting you off and turning it over to the next questioner.
With that, we will begin with Mr. Strahl.
Mr. Strahl, the floor is yours. You have six minutes.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here for this emergency meeting to discuss the failure of the Canadian transport system and the impact that it had on Canadian travellers over one of the most important travel seasons of the year. Of course, we recognize that this is now the second travel season in a row in which there have been major travel disruptions, in which passengers have been stranded in airports, stranded abroad and separated from their baggage. It's a situation, quite frankly, that the minister told us in the fall had been resolved. He was convinced and had confidence that there would not be a repeat of the travel chaos from the summer. Of course, we've seen horror stories that, I would argue, were even worse.
My first question is for Sunwing, for Mr. Corrado.
On what date did reach out to you directly to discuss Sunwing's failure to return Canadian passengers home on their scheduled flights? On what date did you first discuss this with the minister directly?
Mr. Corrado, I'll come back to you.
Obviously, I think what happened with your passengers abroad is very concerning. We've heard your reasoning for that.
I want to talk specifically about your operations in Saskatchewan. I find it very troubling that you would have booked travel and taken money from Canadians when you didn't have pilots lined up for the flights that you were selling.
Can you advise this committee when you learned that you wouldn't have these pilots available? How did you possibly book travel for Canadians when you did not have crews or planes lined up to service them? This is a catastrophic failure, with heartbreaking stories of people cancelling weddings, losing trips of a lifetime, and abruptly pulling out of an entire province.
How do you explain a business model that allows you to take money from Canadians while you don't have the crews to deliver that service?
As we began to prepare for this winter's operations last spring and identified our pilot requirements, we identified the requirement for 63 additional pilots that would fall under the temporary foreign workers program. We had previously availed ourselves of this program, several years back. We had a certain amount of assurances from our legal team that this should be a successful application, and we proceeded down that road, the road to that application.
Unfortunately, on December 9 we were informed by the ESDC that they were not going to give us a positive opinion on that and, as such, could not use the foreign pilots. We immediately took action. We rebuilt our schedule, rebid our pilot rotations, brought in additional subservice aircraft to free up our own crew to bring into that marketplace, and we put some aircraft specifically into that marketplace from a subservice provider.
Unfortunately, even with all this, in the midst of the storm, with the inability to position, with the inability to recover from the various locations due to the limitations, we failed to deliver to the level we had expected to and—
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Gentlemen, I thank you for being with us. You know full well, I'm sure, that the committee is not meeting today to find fault with your response to the storm. You don't control the weather, any more than I do, although we all wish we could control it a little.
It's really the customer service that's the problem.
In the case of Sunwing, we're talking about people having to wait for seven hours on a plane, without adequate food, when section 8 of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations requires that when a delay lasts more than three hours, passengers must be allowed to disembark the aircraft.
There are also stories of people being stuck in airports and having to sleep on chairs, which is not the worst, or on the floor. Also, people couldn't get through to the line to find out what was going on and lacked information, even though the regulations call for updates to be given to passengers every 30 minutes.
These are the things we are discussing, because they are your responsibility. The point here is to find, not culprits, but viable solutions for everyone. That was the point I wanted to make.
Mr. Corrado, from Sunwing, I'll start with you. How will you ensure that people are never again stuck on a plane for seven hours on the tarmac, and that section 8 of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations is respected at all times, regardless of the conditions?
Indeed, this would be important. Most independent agents are women and this is their only income. Let's say it's highly damaging that people do their work without receiving compensation. We would like these people to be compensated.
Mr. Rheault, as I said at the beginning, no carrier can be reasonably held responsible for a weather bomb affecting all of Canada, that is clear. However, we are not here today to talk about the weather, but to talk about the resources and information that Air Canada passengers want to have access to.
How are you going to organize things so that there are no more inordinate wait times? People try to call agents, but there is no answer or even an offer of a return call or an answering machine. People are on hold. They have to wait for hours in line at the airport to get answers. How are you going to ensure that customer service in emergencies or crises is adequate and better planned?
Thank you for your question.
As I mentioned in my remarks, we have no financial obligation, but we obviously have an obligation to communicate with passengers, provide information and “reprotect” them. We are sorry for the passengers who had to wait to be “reprotected”, and we sincerely apologize.
The difficult thing about these situations is that they create an influx of calls that are all redirected at the same time to the call centres, which increases waiting times. I can tell you that we have made sure to offer employees overtime and many have volunteered. We have more employees than we had in 2019, but we will continue to review our practices. We will continue to hire people to improve that part of our service. Still...
Thank you to all our witnesses for appearing before us today to answer our questions.
I want to start by trying to channel the dismay, the frustration and the anger of hundreds of Canadian passengers who were stuck over the holidays because of the incidents that we've been talking about already at this meeting. Among those groups, I don't think there's a group that feels more frustrated and more angry than the passengers of Sunwing, who were stranded in international destinations for days.
I want to set the stage by reading for you the same email that I read at our last meeting and then directing some questions to Mr. Corrado from Sunwing. This is from the mother of a Sunwing customer stranded in Puerto Vallarta.
She writes, “He is getting no reliable information from Sunwing as to how long this may last. Every day he has to check out of the hotel and wait in the lobby to see if he is included in the passenger list that will be provided a room for the next night. He is frantic. From my end, I have made countless phone calls to Sunwing and have not been able to talk to anyone. There is no reliable information and no communication from Sunwing representatives. He cannot afford to book a return flight with another airline and then fight with Sunwing to get his money back. I know there are certain rights he has, but they seem to be difficult to access and our government does not seem interested in their constituents' dilemmas. He is not alone, there are hundreds of Canadians in the same situation. Something has to be done for these people. I am a senior on pensions that are very limited. I cannot afford to fly him home....”
Well, she did end up flying him home on another airline, at their own expense. At the end of all of this, Sunwing has offered this family $150.
My first question is for Mr. Corrado.
I appreciate that it is in addition to paying for the expenses that were incurred, but why $150?
First of all, as you read that detail.... I'm a father as well. That's a story that tugs at one's heart. I don't know the specifics of that story today, but as a parent, as a Canadian, that's a story that's unacceptable.
Without understanding the specifics of this, I can't comment on the $150. What I can tell you is that if the flight falls within our APPR obligations, all of those obligations are being met. What I can tell you is that we had representation in destinations. We paid for hotel, food, beverages, and we had people supporting in destination. If we failed specific to this, again, without understanding the specifics, I can't comment.
We were fully committed to doing all possible to support passengers who did not depart as planned. We're sorry for this, and we've spoken about the various reasons, but we will do right by our passengers as per regulation, and we've done right by our passengers in destination.
I just want to thank all of the executives here today for coming and answering questions. As you know, this last travel season was very tumultuous, and many people were anticipating travelling and meeting with their families. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I'm happy that we're here to discuss this today.
My question is for all of the airline executives, but specifically I'd like to start with Mr. Corrado of Sunwing Airlines.
Mr. Corrado, how many complaints were filed as a result of this last holiday travel season?
I want to thank all of the witnesses for joining us today and for providing testimony on this important topic.
I represent a riding in northeast Calgary, with the Calgary International Airport and thousands of employees who work at the airport, and thousands of new Canadians who make Calgary Skyview their home. This holiday season was a complete disaster across the country for my constituents and for Canadians.
I appreciate the opening testimony. Air Canada mentioned that they had built in significant resiliency preparing. I want to start with the 15 wide-body aircraft.
I want to start with Mr. Corrado. Did you build in a similar type of resiliency to avoid disruptions and impacts?
I'm happy to answer the question. Thank you.
As it was mentioned earlier on, when we take a look at building toward our peak season, we take a look at the schedule we intend to operate. We take a look at the fleet, we take a look at the crew and we take a look at all aspects. We build resiliency into the operation, so that we have the flex required. We had spare aircraft and we had no shortage of operating crew.
In Calgary, in particular, our primary issue with the weather wasn't what we saw in Vancouver and Toronto. It was the tail end of almost three weeks of extreme cold, and that takes its own toll on the fleet, in particular. From this perspective, we saw higher requirements to use our spare aircraft for recovery, maintenance issues and things like that.
We had strong resiliency built into our network schedule.
I've heard everyone this morning talking about how they support the APPR and would like to see the regulations strengthened for the airlines.
Maybe I'll start with Air Canada, then go to WestJet and Sunwing. Do you believe that we should further strengthen these regulations, as you stated, to all industries?
If you support the regulations, why are you taking the government to court regarding the APPR?
Let's start with Air Canada, go to WestJet and then go to Sunwing.
Please be very quick.
I want to cause some thinking. There may be situations where there is a lack of staff, but the fact remains that planning is the carriers' responsibility. I wonder about this: I understand that understaffing raises safety issues, but why sell a flight if, in the first place, the planning anticipates that there will not be enough staff for that flight?
This is really problematic and not the passenger's responsibility. It is not their fault that the flight was delayed or cancelled due to lack of staff. Nevertheless, it is the passenger who pays. There is no compensation for this, even if it is not caused by a lack of planning on the part of the passenger.
I would like to hear from you on this subject.
Thank you for the question. If you have any specifics about a constituency case, we've obviously fielded dozens of these from you and your colleagues, so we're happy to take a look at that. We're happy to provide that service to you and other members of Parliament.
We booked many, many guests on other carriers, as other carriers did throughout the season. We did everything we could to get people moving.
With respect to the individual case that you're talking about, we do have an obligation to respond to a claim within 30 days as part of our regulation. If the guest does not agree with our interpretation or what we've provided to them, they have the opportunity to go to the CTA, which unfortunately has a long backlog. They do not adjudicate claims within 30 days, which is something that we are obliged to do.
I would encourage that guest, and would encourage you, if you have a constituency problem, to.... We'll make our best efforts to appropriately make sure they're looked after, but a lot of guests, because of the scale of the weather and the cascading problems that Scott walked through, sadly and unfortunately were not able to be re-booked within 48 hours.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'm going to put a number of fairly short questions to you, because this has raised a lot of questions. We've heard many comments from people back home who have been stuck in airports and planes for hours and hours.
I would just like to give the airlines a piece of advice: don't do what the government did, with its lineups to get a number, as they did with the passport issue. At Air Canada, you have to wait in line to get a phone line. Yet everyone has access to a mobile phone. Put the number out there and make sure that people will answer the phone. I think that's the best solution in these situations.
I would like to ask each of the companies when the discussions with the took place.
We know that Sunwing only spoke to him on January 5. As for WestJet, however, when exactly did you first speak directly to the minister?
Mr. Rheault, I would like you to tell us exactly when the discussions took place between Air Canada and the Minister of Transport himself, not his office. The members of the committee would be very grateful.
On social media, there were several tweets from the minister. On December 23, he said he understood how frustrating the situation was for Canadians. That was the same day he allowed Santa Claus into the air, by the way. On December 28, he said that the situation was unacceptable and that Canadians needed to get the information they needed to get home safely. On the same day, he said that the government would continue to ensure that their rights were protected. Subsequently, on January 3, the committee chair said he was calling a special meeting of the committee, and the minister said Canadians deserve answers.
For my part, I wish to determine the extent to which the minister himself sought answers from the airlines about the situation. Rather than communicating with Canadians via tweets, did the minister actually set up and participate in a crisis cell to address the situation at the airports? Ultimately, the situation is his responsibility. So that would have been important.
We understand that the minister probably focused less on Sunwing because it is a smaller company. Yet we saw that there were many more problems.
I now have a question for Air Canada. You say that the federal government pockets much more money than it invests in air transport infrastructure. You seem to be saying that infrastructure was one of the causes of the problems all air passengers endured during the winter period. Is that correct?
In your opinion, how much more money does the government take in than it invests in infrastructure?
I want to thank colleagues for letting me join you here today. I'm not a regular member of this committee, but given the mess that was holiday travel and the impact it had on my constituents in Oakville North-Burlington, I felt it was really important to be here and get some answers for them. Many of them hadn't travelled since before the pandemic and they were excited. Then, as we all know, it was an absolute mess.
I acknowledge that, and my Bloc colleague said the same thing, you can't control the weather but you can control the plans you have to deal with it, as well as how you communicate with your customers. Both of those were sorely lacking over the holiday travel season.
I want to start with Sunwing. You've acknowledged that you were trying to get 63 foreign pilots and you were unsuccessful. Then you said that you had resiliency built into the system. With all due respect, sir, I would challenge that. You didn't have resiliency in the system and you were selling Canadians travel when you did not have the capacity to deal with it if there were any problems. Bad weather is not unique to our Canadian winters.
Did you have a warning from the Government of Canada that this application may not be successful?
That's a great question. We obviously empathize with those guests greatly and with your constituents who were impacted, and we have expressed that here today sincerely.
As I mentioned earlier in our opening remarks, we have conducted and are conducting a pretty significant lessons learned exercise. Part of that is how we communicate with our guests and how we co-operate with our partners when incidents of this scale occur.
I don't want to underestimate or understate the scale of what we encountered. I'll just note this because we were researching this for the committee. In Alberta, for example, the Alberta Motor Association wait times were three and a half days for roadside assistance. Sometimes it is weather, but the question you've asked is what do we do when things go wrong.
We have identified two main areas. One is our communications with our guests. Despite regularly updating media and getting our messages out twice a day, having more than 17,000 media requests and getting that information out, we have heard from you and others, from our guests specifically, that our guest communication was lacking, so we're going to do a better job of that.
The second, as you mentioned, is working with our airport authority partners—you're going to be hearing from them shortly—on how we work together in those moments to make sure there are beds and pillows in these unique, extraordinary circumstances because they should never happen—
I want to thank our guests for being here.
I have a unique opportunity. I've sat on both sides of the table, on all sides of this discussion. I've been on the front line of the airlines and I've worked in airports. I guess my frustration with this is that these circumstances aren't new; we have winter operations every year. My frustrations lie in the fact that we have winter operations debriefing in the spring on what we can do and what lessons we have learned that we can be better at for the next winter, yet we fell down this winter.
Given that perhaps it was extraordinary, I fail to see that. I guess one of the biggest questions I have is when is it ever acceptable that we have passengers sitting on aircraft for up to 12 hours, and in some circumstances, over 12 hours?
I'll open that up to our airline witnesses.
Again, as I said, I'm in the unique position of actually feeling for our airlines witnesses who are here because—I agree—there are more entities that are responsible. However, our airlines are in the line of fire right now.
I understand the unique situation you're in such that you have to dance that delicate dance.
Mr. Gibbons, perhaps I'll start with you. Who also bears the brunt of the responsibility here? Would it be airports and government? What has the government done in the last seven years to ensure that our transportation sector—specifically our ports and airports—is running smoothly?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to all the witnesses who are appearing here today.
I flew this morning from Halifax. I think all of us across the country can acknowledge that what happened in December was a mess and was chaotic. The stand that I would like to take is similar to that of a couple of the members who have already asked questions.
None of us can prevent storms and weather, and we know things happen when they do. The issue that I want to concentrate on is the poor communication and lack of communication with customers and clients and whether the airline knows that the aircraft is going to be delayed or cancelled or whatever for minutes or hours. I personally was caught when I tried to leave Ottawa in December for Toronto but we couldn't depart due to weather. I had called in the morning and was told everything was going to be fine. Had I known, I could have had us rerouted and we could have gone to Montreal, because in Montreal things are usually a little bit better, as I was told. We got on a flight to Montreal 24 hours later and then we were stuck in Montreal because the international aircraft could not depart because of mechanical problems. Things happen; sometimes they're controllable and sometimes they're not.
The issue here is communication. I saw so many people lying down in the airports. People were getting angry and frustrated, and I felt for the staff who were there. There was no communication and none of them knew what was going to happen. Some people were lucky to have lounge access. A lot of people have apps and those said they were boarding. You're going there and you're left waiting for hours and there's no boarding.
I'll start with Air Canada, because it happened to be an Air Canada flight, but it was probably the same with other carriers as well.
What are you doing to improve this communication? Clearly it's not happening. People understand there are difficulties, but there's really no answer when there is no communication to customers.
I apologize for the disruption you suffered during your trip with us.
You're absolutely right. When we do things right, communication is the key thing. When you have weather events, especially winter storms, they generally don't just pop up. We have advance notice, which is why we put weather alerts out and we have goodwill policies alerting people to things that could potentially happen.
The one thing I will say is that there are a number of knock-on effects, so as the day goes on and as things change, flights can have further delays or cancellations for multiple reasons. There's not just one reason. I can see that being confusing. You brought up that there was a mechanical issue on a wide-body plane. That was not known in advance. It was not known in the morning, and if that's the case, that happened in real time. However, we have invested and are investing in lots of new technology to try to communicate with and train our personnel who have the responsibility to forecast flights, and it is something we strive for. One of our top priorities is that communication is key. Even if your flight is cancelled and the news is not great, it should be as far in advance as possible.
People have said that this isn't our first winter; we've had winters before. The key is that if we have to cancel—and we've cancelled in previous years as well—we cancel early if we are not able to operate, and that does keep people away. It does disrupt their travel, but the early communication is a tool that we try to use here and then we add as much capacity early on as possible.
I'll just make one point. December 23, Friday, is the busiest travel date, but we still carried 90,000 people that day. What we did know was that the storm was going to be continent-wide. We put alerts out early to try to move people on the Thursday. Thursday was not going to be our busiest day but it ended up being our busiest day of the entire travel period as we tried to proactively move people prior to the storm, not after.
I would say the difficulty started back in mid-December, if not earlier, due to storms and everything else.
I'll go back to communication and staffing.
I sympathize with the staff, but it was an international flight. We were on the tarmac for quite a bit. Finally people were unloaded. The plane was packed. We had to go to customs, clear customs, get our luggage and get out, but there was no staff there to tell people what to do.
What are the policies and how do you do that? What should customers rely on to get proper communication? What is the policy with Air Canada?
If I have time, I'll go to WestJet next.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Gentlemen, I spoke earlier about the notion of safety, which sometimes seems to be invoked for a host of reasons. When someone buys a ticket, they are entering into a contract with a carrier and therefore they expect their safety to be optimal. I think everyone here wants that safety to be optimal.
Now, if the lack of personnel justifies the use of this safety concept, would there not be a flaw in this concept here, which should be reviewed to properly frame it?
I think I have the point of your question. Obviously, our industry is one of the safest forms—if not the safest form—of travel around, and safety is first and foremost.
To your point, in a disruption when we, as an airline, start to back up and we have people in the halls, etc.... These become security concerns for our frontline staff and for others, so I absolutely agree. That's when we try to be proactive. One of the best things....
I'll bring up December 23, which had both a significant snow event in Vancouver, starting around nine in the morning, and a continual flash freeze and icing event in Toronto. On both of those days, we took a proactive approach. What we didn't want was that exact same situation with cancellations that can happen in the moment. That's always the worst-case scenario. You're right there and you have the expectation, and it's taken away from you.
What we tried to do from a compassionate perspective for our guests in those cases was cancel in advance. They didn't have to leave their homes, and we didn't put them in that state—
I remember the day well. You're absolutely correct that there is the APPR tarmac rule that we follow, not just in Canada; there are other tarmac policies around the world. However, in the case of safety, if it is not safe to do or if it jeopardizes...damage or injury, we do not have to take the three hours and 45 minutes.
In this case, if you look at the number of aircraft that were in Vancouver that evening for all airlines, we could not get to a gate safely. The airport could not keep up with proper apron clearing, employees could not tow aircraft, and we could not disembark using air stairs out to an open surface and transport the passengers to the terminal. All of these were explored. All of these questions were asked.
Nobody wanted us to have customers on board for 11 hours or for any time of a lengthy delay. However, in a situation like that night's, when it is unsafe and we could jeopardize making things worse, we will always take the side of safety.
I call this meeting back to order.
For the second half of today's meeting, we have, from Aéroports de Montréal, Monsieur Philippe Rainville, president, and Monsieur Martin Massé, vice-president; from the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, Ms. Deborah Flint, president and chief executive officer, by video conference; and from the Vancouver Airport Authority, Ms. Tamara Vrooman, president and chief executive officer, also by video conference.
Thank you in advance for your testimony today, and welcome to our committee hearing.
We will begin with opening remarks from Aéroports de Montréal.
You have the floor for five minutes.
Members of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss travel delays and the treatment of air passengers during the recent holiday season.
I have been with Aéroports de Montréal for 15 years now, and have been the president and CEO since 2017. I am accompanied by our vice president of public affairs and sustainable development, Mr. Martin Massé.
As an airport authority, our role is to provide adequate infrastructure and, to the extent of the powers entrusted to us, to ensure quality service delivery to our passengers. In December, 31 airlines offered direct flights from Montreal to 125 destinations, including 93 international destinations.
During the most recent holiday season, a daily average of 450 flights landed and departed at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, code YUL. With the exception of the major impact of the December 23 storm on airports in the northeast and United States Midwest and Canada, causing flight delays and cancellations, overall operations at YUL went smoothly throughout the holiday season, except for one of our partners, Sunwing. I'll come back to that.
Planning for the holiday season began in October with numerous coordination meetings, particularly to ensure that our partners had the necessary number of staff to deliver the promised service to passengers. I can therefore say that the ADM team and the federal agencies were ready to face a particularly busy holiday season. They were also prepared for an exceptional, and, according to some meteorologists, historic storm. Once again this year, YUL distinguished itself for the efficiency of its snow removal operations. Despite the weather cocktail that hit Quebec, YUL remained fully operational at all times thanks to the proven expertise of our people in the field.
We can understand that weather or factors beyond the control of carriers can impact their operations. However, what is unacceptable is the lack of communication with their passengers, who are also our passengers. They have a right to be informed, especially when there is a delay of more than three hours. We must avoid people coming to the airport to wait unnecessarily when they could be in the comfort of their own homes. We need to avoid having hundreds of passengers stuck in our airport waiting for their departure.
In such situations, it is our employees, those of ADM and those of the carriers, who are faced with the understandable frustration of passengers. Naturally, that they want factual answers. We must therefore improve our internal communications with the airlines, because it is important to better understand the situation and, above all, to better explain delays to passengers. For example, they need to be given the precise time of arrival of the aircraft that will take over, and informed when it is en route.
So, back to our more problematic carrier. Last week we contacted them and demanded a plan of action to ensure that resuming normal operations did not take so long. We are awaiting a response from them and hope to have corrective measures in place in time for the late February and March school break.
In closing, let me give you an overview of the level of service that Montreal passengers should expect in the coming months and years. For next summer, considerable efforts are being made by all to ensure that we avoid another summer like 2022. I believe we will succeed, despite a still very difficult labour situation.
What we are more concerned about is the long-term situation. YUL saw tremendous growth before the pandemic, and an equally strong end to 2022. It is clear that, despite significant technological input, our infrastructure will not have the capacity to undertake the next decade.
Many of our infrastructures are outdated, Mirabel remains a collective asset for which ADM bears the annual losses, and decarbonization is becoming a necessity. Our debt level is too high to prepare for the future. We are therefore counting on a financial relief valve in the near future and we believe that it can be provided within the current governance model of major Canadian airports.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you to the committee for this opportunity to appear.
We recognize that this very special holiday season was a difficult one for travellers. As airports, we are squarely focused on improving the traveller experience. This is what Canadians expect from us and as airports and across the industry we must deliver.
To put the magnitude of the operations at Pearson in perspective, on any given day during the holiday season from December 23 through to December 31, Pearson processed over 108,000 passengers per day. This took place during one of the most extreme weather events of the year.
We know that this summer was also very challenging, but very different than the circumstances over the holiday. With the summer restart, Pearson went from being one of the world's most shut down major hubs for the longest duration, to one of the busiest in the shortest amount of time.
For point of reference, back in December 2021, LAX was back to 55% of its prepandemic multi-tens of million passenger numbers, whereas Pearson was merely at 25%. Again our ramp-up was much steeper and much faster than many other complex, large-hub global airports.
Restarting and accelerating an air travel system has many moving parts, including airport facilities of billions of dollars of assets. Again, the summer restart challenges were very different than what was experienced during this Christmas. The airports and the system had modernized in a significant way and accelerated readiness in a significant way to move passengers more efficiently. Examples include technology tools that allow passengers to pre-book, and understand the airport environment and operating environment before they arrive at the airport.
Recognizing that this recovery period still had many vulnerabilities and anticipating that there would be weather challenges that typically come with winter, back in the spring and summer we elected to decrease the winter and holiday capacity of the airport by 17%. Reducing the number of aircraft that could take off and land from 90 to 75 movements per hour in the slot process was intended to reduce the risk of lineups and add resiliency to the airport operation.
We know that's not an easy decision. There are costs in terms of the economy, choice for Canadian travellers and business for the airlines, but we felt that was important.
This holiday, what happened? It was really a perfect storm of significant epic bad weather and an industry that was healing from the COVID extended shutdown. Labour is still very weak across the board of our partners. Cancellations due to weather have a compounding effect, leading to delays, backlogs and challenges with baggage. We know that airlines are in charge of taking bags on and off planes, and airports are in charge of the infrastructure.
At GTAA, we are transparent and recognize our part in providing the airport facilities, and when those facilities and issues with them do contribute to incidents. On December 24 and 25 specifically, the terminal 3 baggage-handling system was impacted by severe cold weather and an atypical wind direction, which resulted in an unusual freezing of sprinkler lines and conveyor belts. That glitch, as unfortunate as it was, impacted less than 10% of the overall bags that were in the system those two days, according to the preliminary reviews that we have conducted.
During those two days 28,000 inbound bags and 26,000 outbound bags went through terminal 3, which is where we had the mechanical issues. This is the equivalent of one bag per passenger who travelled during that period on a quantitative basis.
That said, we are absolutely committed to modernization, increasing the resiliency of our system for current conditions and current risks. We are well on our way to doing that from an operating perspective, and we are going to do that from an infrastructure and investment perspective as well.
That said, I will touch on a few things that we need and that we believe this hearing allows us to share. These will improve the travel experience for Canadians on a forward basis.
We must make more investments, not just at YYZ but across the airport infrastructure and airports in Canada. We ask the government to allow us to reinvest rent that we paid to them during 2020 and 2021, years where we took financial losses and we had very low levels of business. Airports across Canada took on $3.2 billion in debt to get through the pandemic and operate the essential infrastructure that we needed for health and for Canadians.
The second of three is that we need better information and real-time data from our partners, especially during our regular operations. We need to get more information in real time to help communicate to passengers and run a more stable, situationally aware airport operation.
We also need to recognize thoroughly that labour today is not what it was. This is outside of the airport industry but absolutely in the aviation industry as well. An equivalent level of staffing to 2019 does not reflect the high attrition rate that we see in our partners, or the training and learning curve that new employees have in a complicated—
Good morning, committee members. I welcome the opportunity to answer your questions. Thank you for the invitation to present to you today.
I'm coming to you from my office at the Vancouver International Airport, which is on Sea Island, the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. We have a deep and lasting relationship with the Musqueam through our sustainability agreement, and I'd like to pay my respect to elders past and present.
I will keep my opening remarks brief and focus on three things: first, an understanding of the weather events that impacted passengers at YVR; second, the immediate steps we took to support passengers and the help we provided to reunite people with their baggage; and third, what changes within the airport system will be made to ensure that what passengers experienced in December does not happen again.
YVR is prepared and able to operate safely in extreme weather. We remained fully operational during the atmospheric river in November 2021, for example. That was also true when the snow and ice storm came at the end of November, virtually shutting down the rest of the region.
That said, this holiday travel season was unique. The impacts to passengers from the multi-day weather event that hit Vancouver were worsened by extreme cold temperatures in Alberta. Storms across eastern Canada and the United States created challenges in the subsequent days. We were prepared for these weather systems in advance. We coordinated with air carriers and their ground handlers. Our de-icing facility and snow removal equipment were fully stood up and operational throughout. We published a departure management plan, or DMP, that would ensure efficient airport operations.
However, into the evening of December 19, the rate of snowfall increased significantly from a forecast of 10 to 12 centimetres to an actual accumulation of up to 30 centimetres, three times what was forecast. As CBC reported, our region received a year's worth of snow accumulation in just 12 hours—a key 12 hours. It meant that aircraft lost what's known as “holdover” time, the amount of time that flight safety guidelines say de-icing fluid remains effective and safe for takeoff. Aircraft that had been de-iced for takeoff were forced to turn back to the airport. Aircraft filled up the gates very quickly. It became difficult to move empty aircraft off gates to make way for arriving passengers.
The accelerated snowfall continued into the early morning hours of December 20. That created broad issues for customers, including unacceptable tarmac delays, while we worked with airlines to clear gates and the massive backlog of aircraft on our airfield.
In the days that followed, we took extraordinary action to help passengers who were stranded in our terminal waiting to re-book cancelled flights. We mobilized our staff, deployed our resources and brought in our community partners. We provided food, water, hygiene products and baby formula for passengers. The airport authority itself paid for more than 400 hotel rooms for up to four nights for 580 passengers so that they didn’t have to sleep in the airport. We established a care and comfort area in the airport, a place to recharge with cots, blankets and access to showers.
As our operations stabilized, the severe weather out east resulted in aircraft arriving at YVR without passenger bags. In response, we took additional steps to assist our carrier partners. We started scanning passengers' delayed bags and set up secure storage areas to help connect passengers with their bags. This was vitally important. It helped us alleviate some of the demands on airline staff so that they could focus on helping passengers in other ways.
I am confident we made the right decisions to keep passengers safe during that week. However, I also believe passengers spent an absolutely unacceptable amount of time on YVR's tarmac, particularly overnight on December 20. As a result, we have implemented initial measures to help ensure that a similar situation does not occur within our airport ecosystem. These measures include greater communication and coordination with airlines around gating, towing, and, most vitally, as many have noted, communication with passengers. We are also launching a series of engagements next week to hear directly from our airport community and the travelling public. We want to hear their feedback and their ideas for what they want to see going forward.
Thank you very much for your time. I welcome your questions.
We certainly appreciate all of you coming to share your perspective. We heard from the airlines this morning, and we'll be hearing from the later today.
I do want to talk a bit about the November 24 summit that the held. He indicated that at that summit he gave direction to the industry players that would prevent travel chaos from happening in the winter season as it happened in the summer season.
Perhaps I'll start with you, Ms. Vrooman. Were you a part of that discussion? Did the provide specific direction to YVR as to what changes you should make to your operations? Did he demand anything from you at that summit?
You indicated that you were prepared in advance for this event. Obviously, you have an emergency operations centre that was stood up. However, clearly, there were more planes inbound. The airport was completely closed, I understand, on the 19th in the afternoon and evening. As a result of no gates being available, we saw planes on the tarmac, which you've referenced.
Is part of your review to determine...? Did you talk to Nav Canada?
Were there flights that were allowed to proceed to YVR that should have been held at their origin, so that you didn't have the issue of that many planes sitting on an apron that was unable to disembark passengers?
As you correctly note, we had significant congestion at YVR for the 24 hours, starting at about 7 p.m. on December 19 through to 7 p.m. on December 20. That was created, as I explained, because of the way the snow accumulated and the fact that we could not safely move the planes to takeoff position after they had been de-iced. It created a traffic jam, virtually.
We had something called a ground stop, which you referred to. That means that we were preventing inbound aircraft from landing. We are in constant communication with the navigation authority in the tower—Nav Canada—in those situations. When aircraft are already in flight and there is no ability to divert for other safety or weather reasons, we permit arrival.
We were operating under a demand management plan, which meant we had a restricted schedule in the first place to allow for that flexibility. However, unfortunately, it was such a busy day—the busiest week of travel in the past three years—that there was certainly a large number of aircraft—
There is talk of running out of de-icing fluid and running out of aviation fuel. Did either of those things happen? If so, how did they happen, given that, as we said, this was a bad winter storm, but it was a couple of days?
I'm asking about your resiliency. Did you run out of fluid? If so, why? Did you run out of aviation fuel? If so, why?
It's wonderful to be here. I'm not a regular member of this committee. It's great to sub in and assist the team, but also to address concerns that have been expressed by Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
First off, if I may, I want to say “thank you” to all of those hard-working Canadians who work for the airports and the airlines, from the baggage handlers to the people who we greet when we check in, and so forth. They always have a smile and they're always doing their best, and they should receive a shout-out. I think that's important, because they do their best, even when they greet travellers who are experiencing things that we don't want them to experience and who may not be in the best of moods. I thank you for that.
This morning, we heard from the airlines. In their testimony, it became apparent to me that they were talking about shared responsibility or what I would characterize as a shared burden in terms of being held responsible for delays that should not have occurred. At YVR, it was the individuals who were held on the tarmac. At GTAA, it was the the baggage carousel.
I'd like to hear very quickly from GTAA and from the Vancouver Airport Authority. What do you think of the idea of shared responsibility, or my term of shared burden?
Of the airport and the airline system in it, only the airline has a contract of carriage with a passenger. The airline, in its risk management, has to put in planning around the risks that are inherent in the marketplace. They do so with the number of fleets and the number of crew. They consider the facilities and they consider all of the processes that are involved in air travel. That is uniquely and distinctly within the air carrier's realm.
There are different levels of remedies in the current APPR that include, in some cases, the provision of flight, which is something that only the air carriers can do. We know that the is looking into the APPR and the regulations. We welcome that conversation and providing our input into that.
We certainly support more service-level standards across the industry, so that all the parties can work better together to plan how to minimize these risks, whether they're day-to-day or, again, in these extreme events.
Thanks for the shout-out, MP Sorbara, to frontline staff. They certainly did exemplary work throughout that very difficult week.
In addition to what my colleague Deborah has said, I would say that.... For example, in our case, when we are talking about the tarmac delays, you might be surprised to know that the airports have no ability to tow or move aircraft. We don't have towing equipment and we don't have the legal authority or insured authority to do so, even if we wished to, so it's a complex ecosystem that works in order to serve passengers safely and efficiently each and every day.
At the airport authority, we would welcome the opportunity for discussion to increase the responsibility of airports for the coordination and movement of some of those kinds of functions. Of course, we would then be happy to share the accountability for providing that service to the level that Canadians expect.
My next question concerns something that has already been alluded to: staffing at the airports. We went through the pandemic and there was obviously a decline in staffing levels. Staffing levels have now gone back up, but volumes have not returned to where they were prepandemic. It's concerning as we move forward that airports and airlines can handle increased passenger counts as we return to a fully normal travel season, and for expansion and growth.
Where are the airports in terms of staffing, and do there continue to be staffing shortages?
I'll first go to the Montreal airport, please.
Let me make a small correction: we have already recovered the traffic volume that existed before the pandemic. We even have weeks where we exceed that volume. We have had weeks where it was 107% of what it was in 2019.
It is clear that in Montreal—I think I can speak for my two colleagues as well—we have the staff required, including baggage handlers, to be able to serve the community. In addition, we are making sure with our partners that they have the required staff as well.
We are in constant communication with government agencies, including baggage services. We even post the positions they want to fill on our website. So we're there, we're ready, and the staff is there.
Are people fully trained? That's another question. Do they have the speed and level of execution that we require? There's still work to be done on that front.
Ms. Flint and Ms. Vrooman, thank you for attending.
Good afternoon, Mr. Rainville and Mr. Massé, from Aéroports de Montréal, and thank you also for being with us.
In her remarks, Ms. Vrooman spoke about the services that the Vancouver airport had offered passengers to support them during the December 23‑24 storm. Did the Montréal-Trudeau International Airport have to go through the same process and offer services: food, support in finding a hotel, transportation?
Absolutely. We had to deal with a situation like this last summer, which was more serious than the Christmas storm. This time we had to do perhaps less.
I myself was there, during the night, to set up beds. Indeed, in these cases, we set up cots in our conference rooms, we give food as well as baby food, diapers, among other things. Yes, we have all that. It's not part of our normal procedures, but in extreme cases we have it.
Of course, you need access to hotel rooms. Last summer, none were available, which was a problem. Also, they are often too expensive, even if there are some.
My questions will be for Ms. Vrooman, from the Vancouver Airport Authority. I'd like to add to the discussion around these challenging events.
I believe it was in the evening of December 22 that we had one of the more alarming stories of the holiday season, with passengers on board an Air Canada flight stuck on the airplane for over 11 hours and unable to deplane. I've seen the communication from an individual who has worked in the airline industry, including in emergency response, and they say it's their opinion that YVR should have implemented an emergency action plan to get the Air Canada passengers off that aircraft.
Is an emergency action plan something that was discussed or considered at some point during those 11 hours?
Starting on December 18 and throughout the week to the 23rd and beyond, to the 27th, we had full irregular operations and emergency operations plans stood up throughout.
On the specific issue of delays on the tarmac, of course our number one priority was to be able to work with the airlines, with ground crews, to get those passengers safely off as soon as possible. As I mentioned earlier, that effort requires coordination and the capability to tow aircraft. The airport authority does not have that authority, that capability or that responsibility; that is the responsibility of the airlines, so we rely on airlines, through their contracted ground handling crew, to move aircraft off gates. Normally, of course, that works very well. They come on to a gate and they move off. In this case, we came to a ground stop and we had no gating capability, as was noted.
You might wonder, though, why we didn't use air stairs. I've been asked several times why we didn't have buses and air stairs available. We certainly stood up buses and air stair capabilities immediately. However, it was the opinion of our airside safety officer that due to the congested conditions on the airfield and the snow, it was unsafe to have passengers depart. We evaluated that situation on an hourly basis until the conditions improved such that we could safely deplane people using air stairs, and then we proceeded to do that, thus clearing up the congestion.
I totally agree that delays for that amount of time are unacceptable, which is why we've put the changes in place that will require that aircraft be on the gate for only a limited time and that airlines demonstrate to us that they have the towing capacity to remove those aircraft.
Yes, we have a climate plan, and it includes resiliency and adaptation. As I mentioned, that includes.... For example, we are located on a flood plain, and while snow is difficult for an airport, water is equally so. During the atmospheric river we were the only transportation hub in the province that was fully functional for those 10 days, and that was because of the work we did to strengthen our drainage, diking and ditch system.
When it comes to snow, we plan for snow. We had a significant snow event that shut down our region on November 29. The airport remained operational throughout, save for a brief period on the north runway, when we had an EVA aircraft that was stopped for a short period of time.
We stress-test against forecasts. We discuss those forecasts with our airport community, which includes carriers, CATSA and CBSA—all of those that come together to support, look at the forecast, and adjust—
Thank you, Mr. Chair. The majority of my questions will be for Ms. Vrooman.
Like many Canadians and Christmastime travellers, I was stuck in the Vancouver airport, waiting for a rescheduled flight. I sat with my wife on an aircraft. I was one of the fortunate ones. We were on the aircraft for only four and a half hours, waiting for de-icing fluid. The pilot came on and said that YVR wanted to hold on to the passengers a bit longer as they had run out of de-icing fluid.
Ms. Vrooman, you have a fancy video, which closes by stating: Let it snow. We're ready for winter at YVR.
Aéro Mag conducts your de-icing services at YVR. I'm very familiar with airport ecosystems. They have 15 de-icing trucks and 10 communal de-icing bays. How can they run out of de-icing fluid?
Thank you to our witnesses for being with us today.
I represent Oakville North—Burlington and most of my constituents travel through Pearson airport, so I'm going to start with the GTAA. I want to talk about the issue with luggage.
You mentioned that the winds were from a different direction and freezing and you made it sound like that was the only issue, yet I know that passengers both before and since then have had problems with luggage that has not arrived, or there have been extended delays in receiving it, particularly during the Christmas period when people didn't receive their luggage.
I'm wondering if you could just comment on the processes for what happens with luggage and how it gets to passengers when it is delayed.
Yes, I'd be happy to answer that. Thank you.
The baggage responsibility is shared, as has been said. We are responsible for the infrastructure: 13 kilometres of baggage conveyance belts and numerous carousels. The airlines are responsible, through their ground handlers or their own staff, for taking the bags at check-in, putting them into the conveyance and then, as they go through the process, for taking them off the conveyance, loading them into carts and getting them to the aircraft, and similarly, on the inbound, getting them into the conveyors so that passengers can pick them up.
When there are irregular operations, many of those times it is due to delays in flights and the transfer of baggage, and the airlines need to coordinate bags from people who have missed their flights or missed their transfers. The accumulation of the majority of the bags at Pearson International Airport and the pictures you saw were due to that, not just for the bags that were destined for Pearson, but for those that were in transit to and from other places.
As Canada's largest international hub airport, we also sometimes serve as a collecting point and a hub distribution point for bags that the airlines are trying to get back to their passengers, so you see stark images of that. I did acknowledge, of course, that we had mechanical failures in terminal 3 during that two-day window, but again, we have a plan, as I've shared. This is about modernizing our airport system. Finally in a position to invest capital, we will make our baggage systems and other parts more resilient, but 10% of the baggage—
I'm sorry. I'm going to stop you there just because I have limited time—
Ms. Deborah Flint: Understood.
Ms. Pam Damoff: —but thank you for the response.
I want to turn now to the efforts that have taken place over the last year between the of Transport Canada and the various sectors of the air industry: airlines, airports, CATSA, CBSA, Nav Canada and others. I just wondered if I could get a comment on the efforts that have taken place.
Maybe I'll start with Montreal, since you're here in the room. If I have time, I'll go to Toronto and then Vancouver.
I'll turn it over to you, gentlemen.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I come from the Halifax West riding in Nova Scotia. We have a great airport with a great team on the ground there doing fabulous things. I just want to thank you on behalf of Canadians. I want to thank you personally for being here as witnesses but also thank all your staff who work at all of our airports across the country and also the staff with the airlines. As you mentioned, it takes a village, really, to get this going.
The more and more I talk to people.... In fact, I was telling somebody last night that I was flying up to Ottawa for a transportation committee trying to understand what's happened over the last couple of months here in Canada and so on. They said to me, “Yes. You're an MP. That must affect you more, because you fly a lot.”
As my colleague across the way just said, I think many of us now who are flying, whether for work or pleasure, are scared, quite frankly, and nervous about flying because of weather or mechanical issues or other things. But I will say this: We've been very lucky. Thank you for all your service. We've had no deaths that I'm aware of, and really no physical injuries. Of course, there are people who have been traumatized, but I just want to say thank you to everybody in the ecosystem who is really there to ensure that Canadians are kept safe, because that is the most important thing.
I do have a question.
I'll start with the Aéroports de Montréal representatives.
Even though we have an international airport in Halifax, a lot of our connections come from either Montreal or Toronto.
You've talked about lessons from the experiences that we've been living the last few months.
Could you tell us what you have done to improve the passenger experience?
At GTAA, which manages the airport, we are 1,500 employees out of the typical 50,000 employees across the airport ecosystem. We have the majority of our staff back. We did an accelerated staffing hire over the summer once we were in a condition where we were not losing money and borrowing money, as we had over the last several years during COVID. Similarly, we restarted our reinvestments in maintenance and asset infrastructure.
Staffing is different today across the ecosystem. There is more attrition and there are more new employees. That is affecting the system. I do believe we need to plan to be more resilient as a result of that. One of our strategic pillars is to create—
We have said it before: we were disappointed with the services of one of our carriers who, unfortunately, did not communicate with the passengers and, more importantly, took a long time to recover.
We are used to snowstorms in Montreal. We also understand how the networks work. Even if we can't intervene, we generally understand how the networks work. It takes about 48 hours for the system to recover.
Now, when a carrier takes longer than expected to land a plane, and no aircraft is sent to take over, either in Montreal or at the passenger's destination, it creates a lot of unhappiness in our airports. Why is that? I explained it: many people are stuck in the terminal. We are trying as best we can to give them good service. It is a situation that is difficult for the airline employees and for my employees, and above all, very difficult for the passengers.
For our part, in Montreal, we have people on the spot, people wearing red jackets who are called ambassadors. These people are omnipresent in the airport.
However, it's nice to have people on site, but passengers still need to get answers. You have to be able to inform people. That is what I explained in my statement. I want us to improve communications so that we have more information and data to pass on to our passengers, particularly by giving them more precise times.
Ideally, we could tell people not to show up at the airport when there is a three-hour delay, for example. But if we have a six-hour delay, let's tell people so they can stay at home. This situation must be improved.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I will address the same question, first to the representatives of Aéroports de Montréal, and then to the representatives of the Vancouver Airport Authority and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.
Whether in the context of your statements or responses that have been provided, you have all talked about investments to be made and improvements to be made. What improvements do you see that still need to be made, whether it's at Montréal-Trudeau Airport, Vancouver Airport or Toronto Airport?
Will some form of support be required and, if so, what?
As mentioned earlier, we may have less need for the Government of Canada and Transport Canada on a day-to-day basis. On the investment side, however, it is clear that we will need support. Every one of us has pointed that out.
Every airport has its challenges. On the Montreal side, they are multiple, whether it's the city side or the air side. The network and the parking lots need to be redone. We need capacity on the air side. And, as with all airports, it's not immediate. We can't specify our funding needs for today or tomorrow. We need to prepare plans for the years ahead.
In the case of Montreal, the problem is not a lack of capacity on the runway side. It's just that, in order to be able to take full advantage of the runways we have in Montreal, we will need support for the rest of the infrastructure.
Ms. Vrooman, earlier you said that food and beverages could have been transferred to the aircraft if a request had been received from the airlines but that no request was received. I'm wondering two things.
First of all, logistically, how would YVR get food and beverage to the aircraft for the passengers who were stranded on the tarmac?
Second, given that YVR was acutely aware that there were planes with passengers stranded on board for 11 hours, was an offer ever made by YVR to the airlines to resupply food and beverage on board?
We certainly were in constant communication with all of the airlines throughout that period, as I said, starting on the 18th and all the way through the week. We would have assessed, had we been asked, the situation, as we would have any medical evacuation, which someone asked about earlier. Depending on the location of the aircraft and the conditions around it, we'd have trained emergency personnel who could provide.
We certainly were constantly asking what support they needed, and the airlines were saying uncategorically they needed access to the gates, so that was our priority.