Air Transat and regulator sued over incident that left passengers stranded

MONTREAL — An air passenger rights advocate is suing the Canadian Transportation Agency and Air Transat over decisions related to incidents last summer that left hundreds of passengers stranded on the tarmac for hours.

Gabor Lukacs is asking the Federal Court of Appeal in Halifax to overturn the regulator’s decision in November to waive the $295,000 fine it imposed after finding the Montreal-based airline had committed several violations of transportation rules.

Lukacs said the fine was just a “slap on the wrist” that is far below the level included in its enforcement manual.

“The penalty is unfit and unreasonable in light of the seriousness of the violations, the extreme suffering they have caused to passengers,” said the 12-page application.

He added that there is no deterrent value if fines are reduced by the amounts passengers receive in compensation.

In his application, Lukacs said the administrative penalty amounted to just five per cent of the maximum available fine even though the regulator found Air Transat committed 590 violations that captured international attention.

And by waiving the fine, “public money” owed to the government is diverted to passengers as compensation.

Lukacs wants the penalty overturned and sent back to the CTA for reassessment. He is also asking the court to rule that the regulator doesn’t have the authority to waive penalties for violations.

Nearly 600 passengers were kept on board two flights arriving from Europe that were diverted to the Ottawa airport on July 31 due to bad weather.

Passengers were trapped aboard the jets for about five hours and testified at public hearings about sweltering heat, a lack of water and the stench of vomit in the cabin.

The Air Transat flights were just two of 20 large planes that were diverted following the closure of Trudeau International Airport in Montreal and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. One of the aircraft was the double-decker Airbus A380.

The unscheduled arrivals put pressure on Ottawa airport, which struggled to refuel the aircraft amid a breakdown in communication.

The CTA declined to comment about the lawsuit because it is before the courts.

Air Transat declined to comment on the lawsuit but said it will pay $500 to each passenger on four flights diverted to Ottawa that day, including two that weren’t investigated by the CTA.

Spokesman Christophe Hennebelle said the company has processed payments that represent more than 80 per cent of the imposed fine.

“We are paying the difference to the CTA, but will nevertheless pursue our efforts to pay the full $500 to every single of our passengers for the four flights,” he wrote in an email.

During the hearing, the airline said the events were the result of a confluence of factors beyond its control that is comparable to a force majeure event.

However, in its ruling the CTA said Transat tariff rules require it to offer drinks and snacks and consider whether or not to let passengers disembark after a 90-minute delay.

The agency also determined that it had no statutory authority to award compensation to passengers for inconvenience or pain and suffering.

In addition to compensating passengers for expenses incurred, it ordered Air Transat to properly train employees, including pilots, about their obligations under Air Transportation Regulations.

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