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Extreme cold causes havoc at Toronto’s Pearson airport, disrupts schooling

AIRPORT-2

The extreme cold was wreaking havoc with transportation and schedules in Southern Ontario on Tuesday.

Air travel

An overnight wind chill of about -40C in the Toronto area is causing huge problems at Pearson International Airport.

For several hours Tuesday morning, the airport grounded all flights because the extreme cold was “causing equipment freezing and safety issues for employees.”

By 8 a.m., planes were gradually allowed to depart again but arrivals were restricted until the order was lifted at 10 a.m., the airport announced.

The ground stop meant that arriving flights were not permitted to land while aircraft on the ground at the airport waited for a gate to become available to offload guests, WestJet explained in an advisory to travellers.

In addition, more than 280 of Tuesday's scheduled flights were cancelled.

The grounding was put in place because of the extreme cold’s impact on equipment and efforts to minimize time outdoors for employees, Greater Toronto Airports Authority spokeswoman Shereen Daghstani told The Canadian Press.

“It was the extreme weather conditions that impacted safe operations and employee safety,” she said. “When it comes to refuelling or removing the bags, those need to be done by employees.”

The problems were reportedly compounded by a backlog of planes waiting for gates to open to offload passengers, travellers waiting hours to collect their luggage and long lineups snaking through the Pearson terminals.

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.

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

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.

Transportation

Nearly one-third of the Toronto Transit Commission’s 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.

The problem lies in the pneumatic systems that control the brakes and doors, said Chris Upfold, the TTC’s chief customer officer, who has been running the transit service while CEO Andy Byford is on vacation. “If you get moisture into those air systems or you get cold around those air systems they just stop working as well,” Mr. Upfold said during a visit by Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly to the TTC’s control centre. “The air releases, the brakes come on and then you have a disabled streetcar.”

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.”Public transport within Toronto was also disrupted. 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. Still, by Tuesday morning, the TTC warned in a tweet that "all streetcars delayed due to extreme cold. Routes supplemented by buses."

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 nearly 2,000 calls for service, mostly 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.

The forecast

From Crowsnest Pass, Alta., to Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, Canadians confronted freezing rain, snow, high winds and teeth-cracking cold.

“Pick your misery," Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said Tuesday. "The weather gods are out to punish you.”

The unstable conditions stemmed from a tug-of-war between a warm, moist system from Texas and cold Arctic air. Like “a bully waiting in the bush,” the cold front inevitably prevailed, Mr. Phillips said. Particularly unusual was how quickly the weather shifted in places such as Windsor, Ont., where the temperature went from around the freezing point Sunday to -18 C on Monday. “It’s like a reverse Chinook,” he said.

But in Newfoundland, where schools have been closed until Wednesday, there was some reprieve: Crews made progress in restoring power for thousands as the island entered its fourth day of outages triggered by cold weather, a fire at a terminal station and a power plant that went off-line.

Mr. Phillips warned that the Arctic air will soon flood the eastern part of Canada and cause flash freezes there too. “It’s going to be a messy situation,” he said. Some communities – including Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Quebec City – were expected to see a drastic drop in temperatures by Tuesday. Those seeking some relief were urged to look forward to the weekend.

“Just wait it out,” Mr. Phillips advised. “By the end of this week, we’ll be into a January thaw in the east and, while not thawing in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, instead of having highs of -25, we’ll have highs of -4.”

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