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Airlines grilled in Ottawa over YVR holiday tarmac chaos

Passengers stranded for more than 11 hours due to lack of safe way to disembark: Air Canada spokesperson
Snow at YVR airport
Cancellations and delays at YVR were discussed in Ottawa on Thursday.

Airline executives were put on the hot seat in Ottawa on Thursday to answer questions about the recent Vancouver Airport holiday travel chaos.

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in his testimony at the House of Commons transport committee that, while inclement winter weather had triggered the widespread disruptions, the main problem was the lack of communication from airlines.

"(The government is) going to assume our responsibilities, and the industry must assume theirs," he said.

Thousands of passengers experienced flight cancellations and delays around Christmas as the country experienced a severe winter storm, with some being stuck on the YVR tarmac for more than 10 hours.

As of last week, 1,000 pieces of luggage were still at YVR, waiting to be reunited with their owners.

The chaos also resulted in skyrocketing ticket prices as people tried to find ways to salvage their holidays, and disorganized communication from airlines left many frustrated.

A Vancouver woman, Tahnee Curtis, told Vancouver is Awesome in a previous interview that she was not informed by WestJet that her flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver was cancelled.

She ended up booking a flight to Seattle, after much struggle, so her boyfriend could drive down from Vancouver to pick her up.

"I understand everybody is busy -- I don't expect to be treated differently -- but it's like you're cattle," she said.

The Canadian Transportation Agency currently has a backlog of 33,000 complaints.

Air Canada officials were questioned by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach on the long wait times on the tarmac at YVR, and said the delays were due to the lack of a safe way for passengers to disembark.

"The airport could not keep up with proper apron clearing. Employees could not tow aircraft. We could not disembark using air stairs onto an open surface and transport the passengers to the terminal.

“All these were explored, all these questions were asked," said Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada's vice-president of systems operations control.

According to YVR CEO Tamara Vrooman, the airport did not receive requests from the airline to bring supplies for passengers on board. She added the top request from Air Canada was to get access to a gate.

Vrooman previously told the Richmond News that YVR’s runways were congested during the snowstorm because heavy and concentrated snowfall posed a challenge to de-icing planes.

She acknowledged the long waits on the tarmac at YVR was “unacceptable,” but said that YVR had changed its policies soon after the chaos and she was pleased with the airport’s performance.

"When weather hits, it causes delays. And I totally understand, particularly at this time of the year, how people can be frustrated and disappointed with those cancellations," she said.

"However, the work that the airport did to prepare with snow removal and deicing worked as it should in these conditions, and I'm really pleased with the performance of our team."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a separate event that changes will be made to the bill of rights for air passengers to strengthen and expand protection for Canadian travellers.

- With files from Elana Shepert and the Canadian Press