Wings Magazine

News
Pearson struggling with frigid conditions: Eng silent

Jan. 9, 2014, Toronto - Toronto’s airport authority says it will keep secret the results of a review of this week’s Pearson International Airport shutdown, as its chief executive officer remained silent for the second consecutive day of the crisis.


January 9, 2014
By The Toronto Star

Howard Eng, CEO of the
Greater Toronto Airports Authority, will return to Toronto Thursday —
one day early from an unspecified business trip, but more than 48 hours
after operations at Pearson ground to a halt, stranding thousands of
travellers and forcing days-long delays.

 

The authority will be
reviewing its decision to declare a “ground stop” early Tuesday, which
banned all landings of North American flights for more than eight hours.
It reviews every extreme weather event that affects the airport, but
keeps the results of those reviews secret.

Advertisment

 

“We never have (made
them public), and they are for internal purposes,” said Scott Armstrong,
spokesperson for the GTAA, who refused to explain why the reviews are
kept secret. “It’s a corporate decision.”

 

Thousands of weary
passengers remained stranded in Toronto Wednesday, trudging forward in
long lines to rebook cancelled flights. Hotels have booked up quickly,
and many have resorted to sleeping on the airport floor.

 

Meanwhile, Eng has
been in Edmonton. Armstrong said the CEO was on a business trip, but
refused to tell the Star how long he had been there, what sort of
business he was doing or why he was unavailable for an interview until
Thursday.

 

The
Star was earlier told Eng was out of the country. There are no aviation
conferences scheduled in Edmonton this week, but the Edmonton Regional
Airport Authority said it had a meeting with Eng on Thursday evening,
which has now probably been rescheduled.

 

Eng, CEO of the GTAA
since 2012, was born in Hong Kong but moved to Edmonton when he was 11
and later attended the University of Alberta. He worked for the Edmonton
airport authority and helped launch and run the new world hub.

 

His daughter, parents
and father-in-law still live in Edmonton. A woman who identified herself
as Eng’s mother on the phone said she was expecting her son to visit
her this week.

 

The authority is
facing tough questions about its decision to call the ground stop —
which it says it made in consultation with airlines and NAV Canada,
which runs Canada’s civil air navigation system — at 2 a.m. Tuesday. It
was lifted at 10 a.m.

 

A ground stop or
“ground hold” means that all arriving flights are banned. The GTAA has
said that a sudden cold snap of -25C temperatures and -40C wind chills
made it unsafe for ground crews to taxi planes to gates. As more delayed
planes filled up the tarmac, no additional North American flights could
land.

 

The
shutdown affected 22,000 people flying on WestJet alone. On Wednesday,
almost a third of scheduled flights arriving at Pearson were cancelled,
243 in total. One quarter of departures — 188 scheduled flights — were
also cancelled.

 

The blast of frigid
weather has affected flight schedules across the continent, with more
than 1,000 flights cancelled at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport
and hundreds more canceled in Detroit, Cleveland and Newark.

 

But an O’Hare
spokesperson said that despite record-low -40C wind chills on Monday,
the airport did not have to declare a ground stop. JFK International, La
Guardia and Newark Liberty International airports also remained
operational during the bitter cold.

 

Toronto must take
notes from other airports and prepare better for extreme cold next time,
said Karl Moore, an aviation expert and McGill professor.

 

“When you look at
places like Regina and Winnipeg, you just dress for it. You would think:
what do they do in Siberia? What do they do in the Northwest
Territories?” he asked.

 

“This is unusually cold for Toronto … They’re not ready for it. But I would blame them if they don’t learn from it.”

 

Crews working at
airports in Regina and Winnipeg would be more experienced and better
prepared for the cold, but they don’t have to be outside for as long
because the airports are less busy, Moore said.

 

Further, when delays
due to cold weather occur, there is more time for a smaller airport to
recover because there aren’t as many planes taking off and landing in
such a short span of time, he added.

 

But he said the GTAA should tell the public what it learns from this incident — by releasing the results of its internal review.

 

“In a case like this,
where it’s had such a big impact, I think it would be good public
relations,” he said. “It would give people in Toronto, and indeed across
the country, a greater sense of confidence in them.”

 

Peter Fitzpatrick, a
spokesperson for Air Canada, said the airline did bring in extra staff
and take precautions with equipment ahead of Tuesday’s extreme cold. But
the deep freeze happened too suddenly, he said.

 

“The weather event in
Toronto was quite unprecedented, in terms of the freezing ice that
quickly built up all over the airport. Every carrier was affected and it
just made it hard to operate,” he said.

 

Ground crews were at
risk of hypothermia and frostbite, and the ramps became so icy they were
“like a skating rink,” said WestJet spokesperson Robert Palmer.

 

He added that some
equipment does not work in the extreme cold, including baggage conveyer
belts and tugs that pull the baggage carts. All of these elements
combined to slow down operations, he said.

 

Since
Monday night, WestJet has cancelled 192 flights, affecting 22,000
people — nearly half of its regular daily schedule. The airline has
chartered a Boeing 757 to help clear the backlog, but Palmer expects the
delays to last a few days yet.

 

“We really want to
express our thanks to our guests for their patience,” he said. “This has
been a very poor experience for them, and we apologize.”