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Frustrated passengers line up during flight delays and cancellations due to extreme cold weather and wind chill at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Frustrated passengers line up during flight delays and cancellations due to extreme cold weather and wind chill at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Cold causes havoc at Toronto’s Pearson airport, TTC warns of long commute Add to ...

While air travellers endured another day of chaos at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, transit commuters were warned to expect extra-long waits in chilling temperatures during the afternoon rush hour.

The Toronto Transit Commission said 35 of its 195 streetcars had to be removed from service because the extreme cold was disabling the pneumatic systems that control the doors and brakes of the aging vehicles. “If you get moisture into those air systems or you get cold around those air systems, they just stop working," said Chris Upfold, the Chief Customer Officer for the TTC.

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“Even with supplemental bus service, the afternoon commute will take longer than usual,” the TTC said in an afternoon statement that urged passengers to use the nextbus.com service.

The streetcar headache came at the end of a day of travel misery that saw Pearson airport be forced to put a stop to incoming flights from North America, aggravating the existing chaos at its terminals, where hundreds of travellers where stranded for hours and police were called several times to restore order at baggage carrousels and check-in counters.

With 4,500 of its passengers stranded at Pearson, WestJet was considering chartering aircraft as the carrier struggled to find hotel rooms to shelter some travellers.

Officials for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority said Tuesday that safety concerns caused by the high winds and extreme cold justified their decision.

They cited a number of factors, ranging from a backlog of planes on the tarmac, frozen cargo doors that wouldn't open and concerns for the ground crews.

“The reason was that we could not keep up with the demand that we had on hand at that time. … It was for safety reasons so that there weren't a number of aircraft on the airfield without a place to go," said one spokeswoman, Corrine Madden.

At the same time, she added that the weather was so harsh that “it really was a safety concern to have baggage handlers and other employees out on the airfield at that time.”

Until 10 a.m., arrivals from other North American airports were either held in the air, redirected, cancelled or postponed. Departures were gradually allowed by 8 a.m.

Across the border, Buffalo Niagara International Airport was closed at 2:28 p.m. because of snow and was due to reopen at 6 p.m.

In Montreal, Trudeau International Airport was still running, but the ground stop at Pearson had a ripple effect, first by creating a backlog of Toronto-bound travellers, then a rush through security checkpoints once the freeze was lifted at 10 a.m., said Aéroports de Montréal spokeswoman Christiane Beaulieu.

While many wondered why Pearson couldn’t handle the kind of weather airports elsewhere in Canada often face, Ms. Madden said the comparison didn’t hold.

“We take on larger aircraft and a greater volume of aircraft than many other airports in Canada so problems can compound a bit faster,” she said.

“This situation is really out of the ordinary. ... It is a combination of things. Because Toronto Pearson is the busiest airport in Canada, for example, compared to Moose Jaw or Saskatoon, we have a much larger volume of flights coming in and going out, as well as larger aircraft.”

Air travel

Police officers had to intervene through the night and morning to pacify frustrated travellers at Pearson airport.

Peel Regional Police was called to Terminal 1 shortly before 2 a.m. to deal with an agitated man at the luggage carrousel. At 2:26 a.m. officers came back to the terminal after 800 people at a check-in area started to get abusive with the staff.

At 5:30 a.m., Peel Regional Police was sent to help 300 passengers looking for their luggage at Terminal 3.

“People coming in were getting irate and yelling at airline staff,” Constable Lillian Fitzpatrick said. She said there had been no arrests. “Our role was just to calm people down”

Robert Palmer, a spokesman for WestJet, said many planes that were scheduled to be sent to Toronto were held instead because there are so few gates available. “You’re pouring water into a pitcher that’s already full,” Mr. Palmer said from Calgary.

As of early Tuesday morning, WestJet had cancelled 86 flights and had about 4,500 passengers who were stranded at Pearson.

 “If it were going to happen somewhere, this is about the worst possible place,” Mr. Palmer said. “We’re desperately trying to find ways to get people where they need to be. We’re exploring every conceivable option, including chartering aircraft, but obviously that takes a day or so to get a plane.”

To compound matters, WestJet is trying to find hotel rooms in the Toronto area for stranded passengers, but has found there is a shortage of available rooms.

With hundreds of people still in line at Pearson on Tuesday afternoon, Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, advised customers not to go to the airport if their flight has been cancelled.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said Air Canada has brought in staff from Montreal and intends to add extra flights or use larger aircrafts to move more people. But it could still be some time until service is back on schedule. “We have to reposition a lot of aircrafts as well as ensure there's crew and that'll take a while to get back on schedule,” he said.

Sarah Moylan was trying to return home to Newfoundland from Ireland after travelling for more than 24 hours, but two flights to St. John's were cancelled on Monday night.

Fed up and exhausted, she booked a hotel, but on Tuesday morning she was back in line hoping to get a flight out. "I definitely won't be going anywhere today," she said, adding that all flights to St. John’s were booked.

She was hoping to get a flight on Wednesday, but for now, she was just trying to make the best of it. “Just have to keep your cool. It's winter travel in Canada. There’s nothing you can do about it,” she said.

Australian Alison Healey, who was visiting Canada for a week, had her flight to Las Vegas first delayed, then cancelled on Tuesday afternoon, putting her at risk of missing her trip to the Grand Canyon on Wednesday.

“The Grand Canyon's not going anywhere so you can always come back another year, but it's a little bit disappointing. But there's nothing you can do with the weather,” she said.

Ms. Healey said the chilly weather and travel disruptions haven’t deterred her from returning to Canada.  But next time "I might come in the summer," she said, smiling.

At Toronto Billy Bishop Airport, there was no ground stop but 41 flights were cancelled and several others delayed.

Transit

The TTC had kept its subway cars inside tunnels overnight and ran additional de-icing glycol cars to clear the overhead wires on streetcar routes. Even so, many streetcars were forced out of service during the morning rush hour, the aging vehicles falling victim to the cold.

Shuttle buses were put on to bridge the gap for frustrated commuters, but the transit service warned that the problem can be expected to occur again this evening.

Not all of the roughly 200 streetcars that would normally have been in service were affected because some are in a better state of repair than others. At the worst point, 61 had failed.

TTC Chair Karen Stintz laughed when asked if the current problems were a sign that subways were a better option than surface rail, arguing that “you don’t build transit for the weather.”

All Go Transit routes except the Richmond Hill line were delayed, with trains on the Milton line late by more than 90 minutes and trains on Kitchener line by up to 40 minutes because of brake and track switch troubles created by the weather.

The CAA South Central Ontario received more than 6,000 calls for service, mainly for car battery problems. Normally 2,500 to 3,000 calls come in in a 24-hour period. “We are servicing high priority calls first. Those drivers stranded in cold or snow prior to those in the safety and comfort of their home," the CAA said in a tweet.

Schooling

Classes were cancelled in several areas, including Dufferin, Wellington and Simcoe counties, Waterloo region, Orangeville and Guelph, Ont. The Conseil scolaire Viamonde, a French board in southwest Ontario, also closed its offices and schools.

Buses were cancelled for the Toronto district public and Catholic schools as well as Peel district schools. Their schools remained open, except at the Island Public/Natural Science School, where classes were cancelled. Later in the morning, the TDSB notified parents that it had to close Davisville Public School because it had no heat.

The cold and and blowing snow also forced Western University to cancel its classes through Tuesday, though the campus remained open. London's Fanshawe College also cancelled classes.

With reports from Greg Keenan, Kaitlyn McGrath and The Canadian Press.

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