The only available gate was one that normally handles U.S. aircraft. Because the passengers were headed for Panama and Costa Rica, they weren't allowed to get off while crews removed the ice.
A Sunwing Vacations trip to paradise turned into the flight from hell Friday, as passengers spent all day, and most of the evening, sitting on the tarmac as the snowstorm swirled around them.
Passengers started boarding about 6:30 a.m. Friday for the 7 a.m. flight to Panama and Costa Rica, said Sunwing vice-president Daryl McWilliams.
But man and nature conspired against the 200 passengers and they didn't clear the ground until after midnight.
The snowstorm that pounded Toronto on Friday was just the beginning of the flight's troubles, McWilliams said.
After clearing the gate, the aircraft had to proceed to Pearson's de-icing facility to clean its wings.
But the de-icing operation stumbled Friday, just when it was most needed.
Instead of clearing 30 aircraft an hour, it was clearing only eight.
"Do the math," said McWilliams. That meant 22 aircraft stacked up waiting in the snow after the first hour, 44 after two hours, 66 after three hours and so on.
"Together with the weather, that was probably the biggest single factor that caused everything."
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority said the de-icing issue was caused by a "software" problem but couldn't elaborate.
As Flight 794 waited for wing de-icing, two things happened.
First, because the plane was idling for hours, it had burned up too much fuel to allow it to take off.
Second, ground crews noticed ice building up on the engine cowling, which requires a return to the gate.
The only available gate was one that normally handles U.S. aircraft. Because the passengers were headed for Panama and Costa Rica, they weren't allowed to get off while crews removed the ice. Then it was back in line for wing de-icing, where the line was longer than ever.
At about 10:30 a.m., the cabin crew had handed out water and granola bars - the only refreshments available. "You can't start up the galleys when you're mucking around like this," said McWilliams.
Passengers were getting restless.
"No food, no water, except for two packages each, at four-hour intervals, of corn chips, and one half glass of water," passenger Sherry Tamilia told the Star.
Then ground staff noticed another problem. The brakes were icing up.
"For this we couldn't even go back to the gate," said McWilliams.
Mechanics had to come out on the tarmac, not an easy thing. "It was chaos - not just for the flights, but everything happening outdoors. On the aprons, on the runways, at times the snow was so heavy maintenance people and baggage people were told they couldn't work.
"It took four hours for our mechanics to do this."
It was now late afternoon, "and we knew we had to get people off the plane." When a gate finally opened up, close to 8 p.m., the airline gave each passenger $25 to buy food in the airport. Each passenger also got a $150 voucher for future travel.
"You can imagine they must have been beside themselves at this point," said McWilliams.
As time dragged on, the aircraft crew, whose hours are restricted by regulation, came to the point where they could no longer work the five-hour flight. A new crew had to be scrambled, although McWilliams said one was available.
It took till 10:50 p.m. to reboard passengers and clear the gate. "I think we had wheels up around midnight or just after."
While the 17-hour delay was agonizing, McWilliams said Sunwing has a policy of not cancelling flights, even during long delays. Passengers are booked for at least a one-week vacation and the airline doesn't want to leave them in the lurch.
With files from Micah Luxen and The Canadian Press
Copyright 2013 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited