Cablegate: Air Transat Incident: Tale of a Job Well Done

Published: Thu 10 Mar 2005 02:02 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) SUMMARY. Kudos to Embassy Ottawa's Bud Locklear,
FAA's Krista Berquist, EB/TRA and PAO Montreal for quickly
providing the information needed to correct false media reports
in Quebec that U.S. authorities had refused emergency landing
permission for a Canadian Airbus A-310 en route from Cuba to
Quebec City. Thanks to your efforts we were able to put to bed
an untrue report, within twenty-four hours, feeding
anti-American sentiment in Quebec. We believe it is just this
kind of "rapid reaction public diplomacy" that will help cooler
heads prevail in the province of Quebec. End Summary
2. At approximately 10 a.m. on Monday, March 7, the consulate
began receiving furious phone calls from the public regarding
Air Transat flight 961 which purportedly was denied landing
permission at Fort Lauderdale airport March 6. That morning
Quebec City's French-language daily "Le Soleil" ran a front page
article indicating that the Canadian charter plane, carrying 261
passengers and 9 crewmembers, had departed Varadero, Cuba, for
Quebec City and reportedly experienced a mechanical failure
after take-off. Our callers told us that the aircraft headed
back to Varadero because landing permission in the U.S. was
refused because the flight originated in Cuba.
3. Meanwhile, several dailies, radio and television were
picking up the story, including interviews with angry passengers
who told of the purported denial of landing permission. Local
media representatives began calling to confirm this information.
Consul General emailed PAO Alyson Grunder in Montreal and
copied colleagues in Ottawa. Within minutes Montreal had
contacted the Charge at the ICAO Mission to get a read out and
forwarded our original email to Embassy Ottawa's ECON section.
By noon, Bud Locklear had reached the FAA and we had a
preliminary statement. FAA then proceeded to go through the air
traffic tapes which established that the Air Transat pilot had
not declared an emergency, but simply asked to divert to FLL.
The pilot himself had made the decision to return to Cuba. At 5
p.m., FAA public affairs had performed an accident investigation
and air traffic evaluation and was in touch with Canadian
reporters. By the 6 o'clock news, Radio-Canada and other
television news stations reported the FAA had investigated the
incident. (Still, the Radio-Canada anchor voiced doubt about
the FAA story.) By 10 p.m. the negative speculation was
dropped. The next morning, March 8, Le Soleil carried the
detailed FAA information front page and media attention moved to
Air Transat's failure to adequately protect the lives of its
passengers and its impact on its share price. (Just last week,
Air Transat's insurers agreed to pay C$7.65 M in damages to
passengers on a 2001 flight that ran out of fuel and was forced
to make an emergency landing in the Azores.)
4. (SBU) COMMENT. The refused permission story apparently
originated in passenger reports that following a mechanical
failure the pilot announced a landing in Ft Lauderdale. After
circling the city, the pilot subsequently announced the flight
would instead return to Cuba because landing permission was
refused. The Quebec public's readiness to jump to negative
conclusions about U.S. actions is unfortunate, but the speed
with which we were able to turn public opinion around, by
getting the facts out quickly, is at least important - if not a
more important - lesson to be drawn.
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