MONTREAL — Passengers who filmed themselves partying maskless aboard a chartered Sunwing Airlines flight from Montreal to Mexico last week have become pariahs and now face being stranded after two more airlines announced Wednesday they will not fly them home to Canada.
Following Sunwing's cancellation of the return charter flight from Cancun scheduled for Wednesday, Air Transat and Air Canada both said they will refuse to carry the passengers, who were called "idiots" Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Air Transat said on Twitter the "disruptive passengers" from the Sunwing flight had been trying to return home on its flights, but they were denied boarding based on the company's obligation to ensure passenger and crew safety.
Air Canada issued a statement saying that "to the extent that we can identify the passengers who were part of the group, Air Canada is denying boarding to ensure the safety of other passengers and its crew."
Among those looking for a way home is Rebecca St-Pierre, a 19-year-old student from Trois-Rivières, Que., who said she feels abandoned, not knowing how she'll pay for her hotel room as her stay is extended indefinitely. She said she tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday and is now in isolation in Tulum, south of Cancun. She estimated that about 30 others on the flight have tested positive.
"The organizer just left everybody. I don't know who's still here. All the flights have been cancelled," an emotional St-Pierre told The Canadian Press.
St-Pierre said she won the free trip in a contest on Instagram and had never previously heard of the organizer, who identifies himself on social media as James William Awad. "I was expecting a relaxing week, where I was going to be careful," she said. "But this turns out to be an expensive trip for something that was supposed to be free."
Videos of the Dec. 30 flight shared on social media show passengers not wearing masks as they gather in close proximity, singing and dancing in the aisle and on seats. In one video, a large bottle of vodka appears to be passed among passengers, and later a woman appears to be smoking an electronic cigarette.
St-Pierre acknowledged that the videos give an accurate picture of what went on during the five-hour flight to Cancun.
"There was no social distancing … I think people were doing drugs," St-Pierre said. She said that ahead of the scheduled return trip, some people were putting Vaseline up their noses in an attempt to thwart COVID-19 testing.
Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino issued a joint statement late Tuesday saying they had directed their departments to investigate.
The statement said passengers who violated Transport Department regulations could face fines of up to $5,000 per offence. It also warned that anyone giving false information to a Canadian government official could face fines of up to $750,000, six months in jail or both.
An aviation expert said he hopes the Transport Department investigation will shed light on why the pilot didn't request an emergency landing after the crew lost control of the passengers.
"We live in a world where pseudo-influencers think they are above everything, but a plane 30,000 feet above the ground can be extremely dangerous," said Mehran Ebrahimi, who heads an aerospace industry research unit at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
"Imagine if people decided, for fun, to play with the door? A plane is not a cottage you rent where you can do everything you want."
Awad wrote on Twitter Wednesday that a "simple party" on a plane was behind the controversy. “I will take a moment to sit down and rethink everything,” he said. “Especially how I can do things better next time."
Awad, who operates 111 Private Club, organized the trip including a group of social media "influencers" and reality TV stars, such as Karl Sabourin from the popular Quebec show "Occupation Double," and Sandrine Séguin and Anna-Maëlle Laprise, who both appeared on the province's version of "Love Island."
Trudeau called the passengers' conduct irresponsible and a "slap in the face" to everyone who has been following public health restrictions. In French, he referred to the passengers as "idiots" and "barbarians."
"Like all Canadians who've seen the videos, I'm extremely frustrated," Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 5, 2022.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press