A group of Quebec influencers and reality show stars could be facing thousands of dollars in fines after videos surfaced showing them partying without masks on board a Sunwing flight from Montreal to Cancun.
Images from the Dec. 30 flight showed passengers ignoring public health measures, jumping and dancing in the aisle, vaping and openly passing around a bottle of hard liquor on the plane. In one video, a person could be seen crowd-surfing while the plane was in the air.
The federal government released a statement Tuesday, saying the departments of Transport, Public Safety and Health have all launched investigations into the incident.
There could be fines of up to $5,000 from Transport Canada for each offence on board, it said.
Additional fines and even jail time could follow if passengers were found to be endangering others, or if they provide falsified information upon their return to Canada.
‘Slap in the face’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday he was “extremely frustrated” seeing the videos.
“It is a slap in the face to see people putting themselves, putting their fellow citizens, putting airline workers at risk by being completely irresponsible.”
He said Transport Canada is taking the situation “extremely seriously” and would be continuing its investigation.
CBC News reached out to several of the people seen on the flight, but has not yet received a response.
The plane was privately chartered by 111 Private Club, a promoter that organized the six-day, all-inclusive event in Cancun. In its advertising for the event, the promoter had claimed the plane would have a DJ.
James William Awad, who operates the company, tweeted Tuesday that the group “respected all instructions given by Sunwing” and that the alcohol was sold to them on board, calling the event a “success.”
He later posted another tweet, saying he is taking the matter “very seriously.”
“A simple party on a plane did all this buzz,” he wrote, noting he would “take a moment” to rethink everything.
First passengers return to Montreal after cancelled flight
The group was scheduled to return to Montreal Wednesday. Sunwing said it reached out to the organizers with terms and conditions for them to board their return flight.
“Unfortunately, the group did not accept all of the terms,” it said in a statement to CBC News.
Awad, the organizer of the event, released a statement Thursday, saying he agreed to most of Sunwing’s terms, including paying out-of-pocket for security staff to be present on the plane.
“I assured them every measure would be followed, but we couldn’t conclude an agreement because Sunwing refused to provide meals to the group for a [five-hour] flight,” he wrote.
Sunwing then cancelled the return flight. Air Transat and Air Canada followed suit, releasing statements saying that the implicated passengers would be denied boarding on their flights.
However, Air Canada confirmed to CBC News Thursday that it didn’t receive a copy of the Sunwing flight’s manifest, which made it “difficult” to identify those who were on the flight.
“To the extent that we can identify the passengers who were part of the group, we are denying boarding to ensure the safety of other passengers and our crews,” it confirmed.
Air Canada said that 15 people were denied boarding Wednesday, and another four were denied on Thursday morning.
About 15 of the passengers managed to return to Montreal Wednesday night. They were detained by border services officers for about two hours before being released.
Awad wrote that the airline companies were refusing them service “based on presumptions” and that his company is “working tirelessly to get everyone back home safely as quickly as we can.”
Danger to plane, crew
Aviation experts say the behaviour on the plane was not only violating pandemic public health measures, but risked the safety and security of those onboard.
Mehran Ebrahimi, who heads an aerospace industry research unit at the University of Quebec at Montreal, pointed to the vaping on board as an example.
“That could set off the fire alarms, which could be very dangerous. It would signal a fire aboard, and the captain wouldn’t know where it was from,” he explained.
“These people think because they paid, because they’re pseudo-influencers, they think they can do whatever they want,” Ebrahimi said.
According to the federal government’s statement about the flight, someone found guilty of endangering the lives of others and causing harm could face up to three years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.
Hans Obas, a former pilot and aviation security researcher, wondered why the pilot didn’t ground the plane once the party got out of hand.
“[They could] remove those passengers, to be able to continue with those ones that are respecting the rules and want to do it,” he said. “Or, just end the flight.”
Rena Kisfalvi, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local that represents about 1,000 Sunwing flight attendants, called for strict consequences.
“These passengers who do not comply [with regulations], will they be charged? Will they be denied boarding in the future? Are they being placed on a no-fly list?” she asked.
“Maybe we, as a government, need to take this step to tell the travelling public: ‘look, we’re serious here.'”