After what seemed like the coldest winter and rainiest spring in recent history, the sun is now mostly shining and the mercury has risen, along with the humidity. The heat can be a little stifling, but let’s try to enjoy it while we can.
Most people assume that airports only have to contend with bad weather in the winter, but changing weather patterns mean more and more summer storms that are having a profound impact not only on airports, but on entire communities. Given the record rainfall and flooding in major urban centres such as Calgary and Toronto recently, I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you a bit about what happens during such weather events at the Ottawa Airport.
The airport has a sophisticated lightning detection system that tracks weather and indicates the potential for, or the presence of, lightning activity in and around the airport. At a certain distance, lightning activity will generate a yellow alert, which prompts a notice indicating that all aircraft fueling activity should be suspended. If the lightning activity escalates or is detected closer to the airport, a red alert will be generated. Once a red alert is received, the system sets off a series of strobe lights that warn all personnel who work airside of the unsafe conditions. While aircraft can land and take-off in these kinds of weather conditions, any activities that require manual activity, such as marshaling, baggage loading or off-loading, etc. is too dangerous and should be suspended until safe conditions return. Once the lightning activity has ceased or moved out of the vicinity, the strobes stop flashing, and airside operations can resume.
Ottawa is a designated diversion airport for Montreal and Toronto Pearson airports, meaning that when their ramp operations are affected by adverse weather or other issues, aircraft that are scheduled to arrive there can be redirected here. The aircraft are typically only here for a short time before setting off again, with a “gas and go” first if fuel levels are of concern.
When an event lasts for a longer period of time, we can end up with many aircraft lined up on the tarmac, as was the case on July 8th when more than 20 aircraft diverted here from Toronto. In the case of an international flight, the airline can choose to off-load the passengers, after first making the necessary arrangements with the diversion airport, which can include securing a gate/bridge, air stairs and Canada Customs processing, among other services. In most cases, the airline has no firm indication of what the wait time will be. Depending on the situation and at the discretion of the airline, pilots may prefer to wait it out onboard the aircraft so that they can eventually get to their intended destination; however crew time limits, aircraft mechanical or on-board medical issues may require them to off-load. This can create uncomfortable situations for passengers, particularly if the wait is extended, or if a passenger’s final destination is actually Ottawa. As a rule, airlines will not off-load certain passengers just because the diversion airport is their final destination.
In the unlikely event that an airline does decide to off-load and all of our gates are already occupied by other aircraft, the Airport Authority has contingency plans in place that include the use of air stairs for deplaning and city buses, as required, to safely transport passengers from the tarmac to the terminal. In addition, the airline’s ground crews have the ability to tow aircraft off gates for temporary parking in designated areas that liberate the gates. Although we occasionally receive messages through social media from passengers who would prefer to disembark, the airport cannot force an airline or pilot to off-load when the aircraft is waiting for weather conditions to improve at their final destination.
When the crew of a diverted flight makes the decision to off-load, the Airport Authority makes every effort to assist the airline and their passengers. This was the case on July 8th when a late diversion of a Cathay Pacific Airways flight from Hong Kong required passengers to deplane after midnight. Because of the late hour, and lack of rooms available at local hotels, the Authority worked with the airline’s ground handler (Servisair), HMS Host, BeeClean, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), Canadian Corps of Commissionaires and many others to ensure that Cathay Pacific’s passengers were well looked after during their overnight stay at the airport. All passengers were processed through Canada Customs, cots were provided for sleeping (thanks to an agreement with the Red Cross whereby we store their cots but can use them if needed), food vouchers were distributed, food outlet hours were extended and a Chinese-speaking Commissionaire was enlisted for interpretation support. In the end, the terminal looked like a camp site, but the passengers were very happy that so many people worked hard to make them as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who lent a hand that night and into the early morning. The way everyone pulled together clearly demonstrates the level of commitment to customer service that we share across the campus. We don’t wish for these situations, but it’s nice to know that help is available when needed. Finally, a big thank you to all of our passengers (intentional or not) who have endured the effects of weather during their travels – we appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding. Now, if only Mother Nature would be a bit more understanding…
Safe travels to all,
President and CEO
Ottawa International Airport Authority