January 5, 2022 By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — In the wake of a party on a Sunwing Airlines flight from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico, flight attendants are demanding stronger action from government and carriers to ensure health and safety on board amid the Omicron surge.
Videos of the Dec. 30 flight shared on social media show unmasked passengers in close proximity, singing and dancing in the aisle and on seats. Some clutched bottles of vodka and rum while others appeared to smoke e-cigarettes and take selfies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in Wednesday, saying he’s “extremely frustrated” with the actions of the young travellers, some of whom appear to be Quebec social media influencers.
“It’s 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 at a news conference in Ottawa.
“I can assure you that this is a situation that Transport Canada takes extremely seriously and we are definitely following up on that.”
Wesley Lesosky, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees airline division, which represents some 15,000 employees at 10 carriers, says the incident underscores the need for greater protections for flight attendants.
Governments should work to speed up access to booster shots for flight crews and airlines should scale back service in the aisles to limit flight attendants’ exposure to the virus, he said in a phone interview.
“We are frontline workers, we’re in the air, we’re in an enclosed environment,” Lesosky said.
“The last flight that I did it was non-stop service … I don’t see the requirement for that now when it’s a known possible risk.”
Ottawa should also require a rapid test closer to the time of departure on most flights, he said, on top of the currently mandated molecular test taken up to 72 hours before takeoff for passengers entering Canada.
“The government comes out with many recommendations. Recommendations don’t have teeth,” Lesosky added.
Non-compliance with COVID-19 or air safety regulations can result in passenger fines of up to $5,000 per offence.
Between April 12, 2020, and Dec. 30, 2021, authorities issued 2,342 fines against international travellers who arrived without a valid pre-entry test and 956 more for those who refused testing on arrival, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Rena Kisfalvi, who heads the union local representing about 1,000 Sunwing flight attendants, says her employer is the only major Canadian airline that does not offer rapid tests to cabin crews, a measure she believes should be mandatory.
Up to 50 per cent of her colleagues have had to call in sick over the past month due to potential COVID-19 symptoms, Kisfalvi said.
“I’ve spent my entire morning mitigating crew members who are now booking off. One has just been rushed to the hospital in Edmonton. This a problem,” she said Tuesday.
“Transport Canada and the government in itself, they could have mandated testing and that would have protected the precious cargo that we move every day, which is human beings.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and three other cabinet members said in a release Tuesday that officials will immediately launch an investigation into the Sunwing incident.
“We are aware of unacceptable behaviour and cases of non-compliance with mask wearing and other air safety requirements that occurred on a privately chartered flight from Montreal to Cancun on Dec. 30, 2021,” the ministers said.
The ministers and Sunwing both said the “health and safety” of flight crews and passengers is a “top priority,” and that breaches are taken seriously.
Sunwing said in an email it notified Transport Canada after passengers contravened public-health and aviation regulations. “We look forward to supporting their full investigation into this matter.”
Kisfalvi called the passengers’ behaviour “unacceptable” and expressed sympathy for the crew on the Cancun flight.
“There’s a point where if you lose the control, you can’t get it back sometimes,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Compliance with mask rules has been a “massive issue” over the past year that has “caused a tremendous amount of aggressive behaviour” from passengers toward cabin crews, she said.
“I’m not sure where Transport Canada is on this. Why haven’t you done more?” Kisfalvi asked, at around the same time Alghabra put out a Twitter post saying he had asked Transport Canada to investigate the Sunwing matter.
In the 12 months between December 2020 and November 2021, 1,452 passengers refused to wear a face mask, according to Transport Canada’s monthly aviation compliance reports.