WestJet says it cancelled a flight from Calgary to Toronto early Tuesday when tensions on board rapidly escalated after a family refused to obey a rule that all passengers over the age of two wear masks.
Passenger Safwan Choudhry says airline staff were trying to force his 19-month-old daughter to wear a mask even though she isn’t required to at that age. But WestJet says it was his older, three-year-old daughter, who was of concern.
A WestJet spokesperson confirmed that Flight 652 was cancelled, adding flight crew have access to a guest manifest that specifically states which guests are under age two, as they are booked as infants.
Choudhry said his family complied with regulations. His younger daughter was identified as an infant on her boarding pass, and his older daughter was wearing a mask.
But WestJet said the accounts from the crew and airline agents differ from Choudhry’s.
“WestJet would like to clarify that there were two children, and we were not requiring the infant to wear a mask, but did require the other child, who is over age two, to wear one,” WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart said in an email.
WestJet has a zero-tolerance mask adherence policy, the airline said, to comply with a Transport Canada regulation making it mandatory for all travellers aged two and over to wear protective face coverings while on flights.
Choudhry said he was disappointed in the airline’s response, and would like an apology.
Flight cancelled due to ‘rapid escalation’ of situation: WestJet
In an updated statement provided Wednesday, WestJet clarified the reason for the flight cancellation, stating again that its staff were asking the parents to mask the older child.
“Our crew requested the presence of the authorities after the guests refused to comply with Transport Canada’s interim order and subsequently refused to deplane the aircraft,” the airline said in the update.
“Due to the rapid escalation of the situation on board, our crew felt uncomfortable to operate and the flight was subsequently cancelled.”
Stewart apologized to guests affected by the cancelled flight, and said the airline found flights for most of them.
“We are disappointed that this issue ended ultimately in a flight cancellation for all guests on board,” Stewart said.
WestJet said the family was travelling on employee travel passes and said those guests are held to a higher standard of behaviour.
The airline said in the update that it would revoke those travel privileges both for the Choudhry family and the WestJet employee who provided the benefits.
Stewart said parents and guardians are informed of the mask requirement and that staff try to “seek an understanding of any situation that may exist.”
“If parents/guardians are non-compliant or unwilling to comply with our requirement, then we will enforce our policy,” she said.
Flying with wife, 2 young daughters
Choudhry was flying with his wife, and two daughters,19-month-old Zara and three-year-old Zupda.
He said there were no issues during check-in, but after being seated and just before the plane took off, multiple WestJet crew members approached his wife and said both children needed to be wearing a mask.
“It started with my toddler and once we got a mask on her, they turned to my 19-month-old infant and said ‘every person on the plane has to wear a mask or the plane can’t take off,'” he said.
“We were surprised to learn our 19-month-old daughter needed to be wearing a mask,” he said, adding that he didn’t realize until later that the child wasn’t required to wear a mask under Transport Canada rules.
He said he and his wife tried to force a mask onto their youngest daughter’s face, to no avail.
“Of course, being desperate to get home, we — despite there not being such a policy — opted to comply until she was crying hysterically, with the crew watching over us, until she threw up, at which point they told us you all need to get off the plane.”
Choudhry said after the child vomited, a flight attendant told him police would be called and threatened his wife with arrest.
A few minutes later, police arrived and said the child would need to wear a mask or the family would be removed from the plane. Choudhry said at this point, other passengers stood up to voice their anger at the situation.
The Calgary Police Service confirmed officers were called for reports of a dispute and to maintain the peace. The force said it wouldn’t comment further as no criminal charges were pending, referring questions back to WestJet.
Choudhry shared a video with CBC News that shows masked police officers speaking to passengers on the plane, and frustrated passengers can be heard shouting as a child cries. Another video shows police standing in the aisle, his older daughter wearing a mask and sitting with his wife, and his younger daughter sitting with him, unmasked.
“As you can see in the video, my three-year-old is already wearing a mask and is calmly watching cartoons,” he said.
“Within a few minutes, the captain of the flight said ‘for security and safety reasons, we’re evacuating everyone from the flight,” he said. “We felt awful that now this entire plane is being evacuated.”
Choudhry said after the plane was evacuated, officers asked for each family member’s ID — which is when police realized that the child was under two, he said.
In another video provided by Choudhry, a police officer tells him that police have spoken with the crew and resolved the mask issue, but that the behaviour of the rest of the passengers left the crew feeling unsafe to fly.
‘I was shocked,’ says witness
Another passenger, Marian Nur, witnessed the entire interaction.
She said at no point did Choudhry or his wife raise their voices while interacting with flight attendants, and that she saw the family doing their best to comply with instructions.
“I was so shocked, the parents never raised their voices, they never got angry with the attendants, they were just trying to reason with them,” she said, adding that she felt the airline’s response “was just very unnecessary.”
Nur said she felt the family was potentially being mistreated because of their race, so she started recording the incident on her phone. She said a flight attendant first asked her to stop recording, then asked police to make Nur stop recording when she refused — police told the flight attendant it was not their responsibility to stop Nur from filming.
“This was about a toddler not wearing a mask, and you felt the need to deboard the entire plane? There was a woman on the plane trying to get home to her mother on her deathbed. It was just frustrating, very, very upsetting,” Nur said.
Choudhry said since the flight was cancelled, WestJet has not reached out to him or his family at all.
WestJet said due to privacy concerns, it currently can’t share any more information about the incident.