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Airline passenger describes 'nightmare' of a failed flight to Thunder Bay

Porter Airlines offers $500 compensation for 'an unusual and unfortunate' flight disruption

THUNDER BAY — A city woman is calling on Porter Airlines to improve its procedures for accommodating and communicating with passengers affected by flight disruptions.

Anna Marchese says the way passengers on a June 15 flight from Toronto were treated reminded her of a third world country where people struggle just to get a drink of water.

The airline cites extenuating circumstances, is offering its apologies, and says every passenger is entitled to the maximum compensation of $500.

As Marchese outlined in a letter to Porter, the "horrific nightmare" began when her early evening flight arrived at Thunder Bay but was unable to land because of weather conditions and federal safety regulations.

This has happened numerous times to various airlines since construction on the main runway began this spring.

The alternate runway – the only one available for about six months this year – is not equipped with the navigation system that's required for aircraft to land below a cloud ceiling of 500 feet or visibility less than 1 3/4 miles.

Marchese said passengers were unaware that this was the root of the problem.

After two attempts to land, the Porter pilot announced he would fly on to Sioux Lookout. 

"It was now close to midnight. Our family and friends were in the Thunder Bay Airport without any explanation and frantic" with worry about what had happened, Marchese wrote. 

She said Porter staff in the airport had failed to provide any answers.

After leaving Sioux Lookout, the aircraft was flown to Hamilton because Billy Bishop's curfew prevented a landing there. 

In Hamilton, passengers grabbed their luggage off the tarmac at 1:30 a.m. and learned the airport's washroom facilities were unavailable to them..

The same problem happened on a bus provided by the airline to take them to Toronto.

"We were told we were not allowed to go to the bathroom, [as] the bus driver told us it was not working," Marchese told TBnewswatch in an interview. 

This was an issue, she said, because passengers had already been unable to use the washroom on the aircraft since Sioux Lookout, where a disposal service was unavailable to empty the lavatory when it landed there.

On arrival in Toronto about 3 a.m., they found that the island airport was closed until 5:30 a.m., and that getting in touch with Porter was problematic.

"We were handed a card with the Porter customer service number but it wasn't in service yet," Marchese said.

Passengers were given the option of continuing on the bus to downtown Toronto, but hotels had limited availability. 

"We were told we had to get our own hotel room. People who called were told it was about $900 to $1,000 per night."

Some passengers, Marchese said, received text messages advising of rebooked flights leaving at various times later in the day, but at this point many had cellphones with dead batteries.

As they waited until dawn,  many "sat outside on the street curb with their suitcases" with no washroom facilities, no water, no chairs, and no protection from the elements. 

People were left scared and confused, Marchese says

Marchese said people were left scared and confused.

"Sadly, there were passengers left with their walkers, canes and crutches. Many had come to Toronto for medical appointments," she said in her letter. "Why would you leave your customers standing outside following such an ordeal?"

When the airport eventually opened, flights were rebooked but there were no food vouchers.

Marchese said several strangers bought and shared food with others, while some offered to push strollers and wheelchairs, or carry luggage, adding that it made her proud see Thunder Bay residents supporting each other.

She ultimately got to Thunder Bay that evening.

Describing Porter's handling of the situation as shameful, and communications from its staff poor, she said saying there has to be a better contingency plan for these kinds of situations.

"They could have easily bussed us to somewhere like Tim Hortons where we could have charge our phones, used the bathroom, gotten something to eat, and waited in a safe area until the airport opened."

Porter says quickly-changing conditions can be challenging

Porter responded to her letter with a promise to follow up and get back to her.

In reply to an inquiry from TBnewswatch, the airline said weather conditions in Thunder Bay on June 15 were good for landing when two of its flights departed Toronto, but both had to land in Hamilton because the weather had changed on arrival at Thunder Bay.

One of those flights, it said landed in Sioux Lookout first because a passenger had a medical emergency.

"We know that that situations such as these are extremely unsettling to passengers," the statement said. "We do our best to communicate with them in the moment, but this can sometimes be challenging with conditions changing quickly."

The airline has indicated that some details of what happened are still under investigation. 

Porter's statement follows below:

At this time, we can share the following information.

This was an unusual and unfortunate flight disruption and we apologize to everyone affected. While the general situation presented by the passenger is correct, some details require clarification.

Two flights were unable to land in Thunder Bay on the evening of June 15, due to weather conditions and specific aircraft approach requirements on the available runway - both flights ultimately landed in Hamilton. The weather was appropriate for landing in Thunder Bay at the time of departure from Toronto, but deteriorated en route. In the case of one flight, the captain decided to land in Sioux Lookout for a medical emergency. Emergency services were present at the airport for this reason.

Sioux Lookout was unable to provide services to empty the aircraft’s lavatory, which was full by this time. Passengers were given the opportunity to use the airport’s facilities before continuing their flight, but the aircraft washroom was unavailable from this point.

After departing Sioux Lookout, the flight landed in Hamilton because Billy Bishop Airport's overnight curfew was in place. Passengers returned by coach buses arranged by Porter to Union Station or Billy Bishop in Toronto. The terminal at Billy Bishop was closed at this time - like many airports, it isn't open 24 hours.

Available hotel rooms in Toronto were limited that evening. Some passengers were given options, but we understand that many decided to wait at the airport given the short time before it would open again.

We know that situations such as these are extremely unsettling to passengers. We do our best to communicate with them in the moment, but this can sometimes be challenging with conditions changing quickly.

The maximum compensation of $500 per passenger is available to everyone on these flights.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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