Canadian airlines recall hurricane evacuation efforts

When Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria threatened the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean this fall, Canadian airlines set about the task of retrieving their passengers in the affected countries.

Air Canada cancelled European flights to schedule in two roundtrips to Florida to collect passengers vulnerable to the storm.
Air Canada postponed European flights to schedule two round trips to Florida to collect passengers who were vulnerable to the storm. Jan Jasinski Photo
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In a race against time, Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing, and WestJet quickly dispatched extra flights to evacuate passengers from the danger zones, waiving flight cancellation and re-booking fees to ease the financial strain on passengers.

“With the various hurricanes we added approximately 10,000 extra seats to move customers,” said Kevin O’Connor, managing director of Air Canada’s Systems Operations Control.

These extra flights were in addition to the “normal flights that were operating,” he said.

WestJet cancelled southbound flights into areas targeted by Irma, and then operated rescue flights from Florida and several Caribbean destinations.
WestJet cancelled southbound flights into areas targeted by Irma, and then operated rescue flights from Florida and several Caribbean destinations. Eric Dumigan Photo

Evacuating this many passengers from the danger zone was not just good for them but also ensured that “local authorities could devote all their resources to helping their own people rather than worrying about foreign visitors,” said O’Connor. “In the end, we sent approximately 40 rescue flights to pick up people in affected areas.”

Because Air Transat’s North American service is focused on Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico, the airline had no customers within Hurricane Harvey’s path. But Hurricanes Irma and Maria were a different matter, which is why Air Transat added four rescue flights to Florida, and 10 flights to the Dominican Republic. Once that latter country was cleared, Air Transat reassigned the 10 rescue flights to evacuate passengers from Cuba.

“The safety of our passengers is paramount, which is why Air Transat worked so hard to evacuate them quickly and safely,” said Debbie Cabana, Air Transat’s marketing director of Social Media and Public Relations. “We managed to retrieve 4,500 passengers out of Irma’s path, and 2,200 passengers at threat from Maria.”

For WestJet, “Our goal was to bring back as many people as possible; not just WestJet guests, but those with the most urgent need to leave and anyone able to get to the flight and with the travel documents that would allow them into Canada,” said WestJet media relations advisor Lauren Stewart.

Air Transat added four rescue flights to Florida, and 10 flights to the Dominican Republic; it then reassigned the rescue flights to evacuate passengers from Cuba.
Air Transat added four rescue flights to Florida, and 10 flights to the Dominican Republic; it then reassigned the rescue flights to evacuate passengers from Cuba. Jan Jasinski Photo

To make this happen prior to Irma making landfall, WestJet cancelled southbound flights into areas in the path of the storm and then operated rescue flights from Florida and several Caribbean destinations.

“Overall, for Irma we operated 27 rescue segments both before and after the hurricane, bringing a total of around 4,300 people back to safety,” said Stewart.

Mounting so many rescue flights so quickly was no easy matter.

“Planning for and executing an operation such as this is extremely complicated, and it involves hundreds of people across many departments,” said Air Canada’s O’Connor.

To make these rescue flights happen, airlines had to reassign aircraft from elsewhere, even if this required postponing some flights to Europe, as Air Transat did.

“Aircraft are not just sitting unused on the ground waiting to fly rescue missions,” said Cabana. “If you need to add some flights fast to one region, you have to reorganize a little with your regular schedule and the use of your aircraft without affecting your operations too much.”

Finding sufficient Air Transat crews was also a challenge, given that adequate downtime and resources had to be found to let them rest and recharge between rescue flights.

The same considerations applied to Air Canada.

“We had to rejig existing flights and schedules to free up aircraft that were supposed to fly elsewhere so they could operate special flights to pick up people,” O’Connor told Skies. “In some cases we delayed a flight going elsewhere in order to use that aircraft to do an extra run down south. For example, one day a Paris flight was postponed so we could use a [Boeing] 777 to do two round trips to Florida.”

Sunwing also took action to quickly mount extra flights to evacuate passengers from hurricane danger zones.
Sunwing also took action to quickly mount extra flights to evacuate passengers from hurricane danger zones. Eric Dumigan Photo

Once the rescue aircraft had been found and reassigned, the next big challenge was getting them south into airports and air traffic control centres that were already operationally overstressed.

“Many of these airports are small and not equipped to handle thousands of customers at a time or large aircraft,” said O’Connor. “We were flying 777s to places we normally serve with [Airbus] A319s, so it presented many challenges for everything from aircraft servicing to boarding.”

Fuel was also an issue: Would the airports have enough gas to refuel the additional rescue flights? If the airports did have sufficient fuel, would they have the infrastructure capable of filling 777s and other large aircraft? If not, the rescue aircraft had to carry extra fuel on board, or make stops on the way back to refuel north of the hurricane zone.

“As well, the people who work at these airports–including our own employees–also live in these communities, so it was a major concern that they were first safe and able to take care of their families,” said O’Connor. “Then there was the issue of whether or not the local staff could get to work to manage the flights. In some cases, we flew aircraft down with ground staff, such as mechanics and ticket and gate agents, to help.”

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While rescue airplanes and airport facilities were being ironed out, Canada’s carriers struggled to reach their passengers in the hurricane zones. Contacting those staying at hotels associated with the airlines wasn’t a big deal–but finding passengers at other locations was.

“This is where social media was so important,” said Cabana. “With social media, we were able to post the latest news about our rescue flights and how passengers could access them, and make direct contact with the people we were trying to evacuate.”

Clearly, all this hard work paid off: Tens of thousands of Canadian airline passengers were evacuated before the hurricanes hit. Meanwhile, “we also helped people who live in the affected areas and are still there by shipping down humanitarian supplies,” said O’Connor.

“We work with the Red Cross and Global Medic, and when asked we used our ferry flights to pick up customers to ship supplies.”

With hopeful and positive messages, Air Canada and Global Medic package and send necessary supplies to hurricane victims
Marked with hopeful and positive messages, Air Canada Foundation and Global Medic packages wait to be sent to southern hurricane victims. Air Canada Photo

Bringing in relief supplies to the soon-to-be-affected areas was high on WestJet’s list. Over the Sept. 9 to 10 weekend, the airline worked 24/7 “to prepare for rescue flights that could be operated safely while bringing the maximum amount of humanitarian aid possible,” said Stewart.

“Knowing we may only have one chance on the ground due to airport damage, we gathered flats of water, tools, tarps, blankets, food, and even diapers to take down while working with the Canadian government, the Red Cross and our partners on the ground in both Turks and Caicos and St. Maarten to coordinate timing, and aircraft turn/refuelling options.”

On Sept. 11, WestJet dispatched flights to both St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos. Each aircraft was loaded with more than 5,000 kilograms of humanitarian aid. They also brought government officials to aid with immigration processing on the flights back home.

Taken as a whole, Canada’s air carriers mounted an impressive effort to rescue tens of thousands of passengers on short notice, while bringing in disaster suppliers before the hurricanes hit.

“Rescuing our customers from the hurricanes cost a lot of time and money,” said Cabana. “And it was all worth it!”

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