It was Friday the 13th of January, 2012. My family and I were returning to frigid Toronto from Costa Rica on Continental Airlines flight 5199. Just after 10 pm, as the CRJ700 began its bumpy descent toward Pearson International, we received some shocking news: “Just to let everyone know,” the flight attendant chirped over the intercom, “we’ll deplane using the stairs tonight, so please watch your step and be sure to use the handrail.”
We were wearing light sweaters and jeans — donned during our layover in Houston — and flip flops. The kids, aged 2 and 5, were also sporting light pants and tops. We had planned for a chilly dash from Terminal 1 to our waiting SUV, which my father in law had generously piloted to Pearson. There were winter jackets for all of us in the trunk, which I was to briskly retrieve at the appointed curbside meeting spot.
What we had not planned for — not even considered, really — was the possibility of deplaning using the stairs.
A few minutes before the outrageous in-flight announcement, we had been informed that the weather in Toronto was overcast and windy, with a temperature of minus 12. Quickly realizing we were not dressed for any amount of time outdoors, I asked the attendant, “So, er, we have to go outside?”
He nodded. “Yes sir, we’ll be using the stairs.”
“I know,” I said, "but there will be a shuttle bus or something, right?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“But there’s a tunnel or something nearby, right?”
“Um, I think the tunnel is about 100 yards away.”
I stared at him incredulously. Then he added, “and I don’t think the tunnel is heated.”
“How long is the tunnel?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Oh, you’ll be walking for a while,” came his vague reply.
Wrapping our sweaters around the girls, we watched as every other passenger on the plane — most of whom had come from Houston and were dressed appropriately — fled down the stairs and tromped briskly across the snowy tarmac toward the tunnel. I could feel my tropical tan being blasted off my skin as I stepped out of the plane and into the freezing night. I ran down the stairs, hastily assembled the kids’ stroller, grabbed our 2-year-old out of my wife’s arms and crammed her in. It felt decidedly surreal as I trucked across the tarmac pushing the stroller — kind of like a scene from The Last Place on Earth.
The tunnel offered little respite from the cold, so I quickly looked over my shoulder to make sure a polar bear had not taken my wife and firstborn before sprinting toward the heated tunnel another 200 metres or so away. I threw open the double doors, raced inside and immediately knelt down to check on the little one. Her lips were blue, her eyes wide and she was shivering all over. I plucked her out of the stroller and hugged her tightly, and seconds later she smiled with what looked like relief when her mom and sister burst into the warm tunnel.
It was then that I thought back to my final words as we left the plane: “We must look like pretty neglectful parents,” I said to the sympathetic crew, one of whom replied, “Not at all. There’s no way you could have known.”
Here lies the crux of my beef with the airline formerly known as Continental: Had we known this situation was even remotely possible, we could have planned accordingly. I have flown into Pearson many dozens of times, and have never deplaned using the stairs, let alone in the middle of January. Maybe the financially troubled airline was somehow forced, either logistically or financially, into using this ridiculous setup by an airport with some of the highest landing fees in the world. But had this possibility been flagged at check-in or at the gate in Liberia or Houston, we could have pulled extra clothing from our checked bags or purchased some Houston Texans sweatshirts at the airport. But no one said anything until it was much too late. Heck, the plane didn’t even have blankets on board.
Sending two underdressed adults into the chilly night is cruel, but forcing two small children into freezing conditions without adequate clothing borders on criminal.