The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canadian passengers partied maskless on a charter flight to Mexico. Airlines are refusing to fly them home.

Videos posted to social media showed a group of young people partying on a charter plane from Montreal to Cancún, Mexico. The images sparked outrage among Canadians who are experiencing restrictions stemming from surging coronavirus cases. (WPLG)
Placeholder while article actions load

Passengers on a Canadian charter flight danced, drank alcohol and vaped as they made their way from Montreal to Cancún, Mexico, the day before New Year’s Eve. Video footage of the rave-like atmosphere made its way onto social media, and the images of maskless travelers partying in the air amid surging coronavirus cases sparked broad condemnation.

Now, those passengers have found themselves waylaid in Mexico, with several airlines unwilling to fly them back to Canada as the trip’s organizer tries to negotiate their return.

Sunwing Airlines, which flew the group to Mexico, canceled the return flight, citing the group’s disruptive behavior and refusal to accept the airline’s stated terms and expectations for the flight back. Two other commercial airlines have refused to allow the group of more than two dozen passengers to board their planes.

“All the flights have been [canceled],” Rebecca St-Pierre, 19, told the Canadian Press. She said she won the trip on Instagram and expected a “relaxing week.”

Instead, she is isolating in Tulum, a Mexican town south of Cancún, after testing positive for the coronavirus, she told the news agency. She estimated about 30 others from the Dec. 30 flight have also tested positive. Before the Jan. 5 return flight was canceled, St-Pierre told the wire service, some of the Canadian passengers put Vaseline up their noses, attempting to throw off the coronavirus tests.

At a Wednesday news conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the passengers’ behavior “irresponsible” and a “slap in the face,” especially as, he said, many Canadians have made sacrifices to limit the coronavirus’s spread as cases surge.

In the past seven days, Canada has reported more than 240,000 new covid cases — a 36 percent increase, according to The Washington Post’s tracker. That has prompted the country’s most populated areas to suspend in-person learning at schools until Jan. 17, while Quebec has enacted a curfew and shut down indoor dining at restaurants, Reuters reported.

“Like all Canadians who have seen those videos, I am extremely frustrated,” Trudeau said, adding that Transport Canada, the country’s transportation department, will investigate the incident.

Transport Canada officials said this week that each passenger could face fines of up to 5,000 Canadian dollars — equivalent to about $3,900 in U.S. currency — for every violation, CNN reported. Air Transat, a Canadian airline, said on Twitter that it was aware of the stranded travelers and said “they will be denied boarding based on our legal and regulatory obligations to ensure the safety of both our passengers and crew, which is our top priority.”

Air Canada said in a statement 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,” the Canadian Press reported.

In a tweet on Wednesday, the trip’s organizer, James William Awad, called the scene on the Dec. 30 flight to Mexico a “simple party” that “did all this buzz.”

“I take this matter very seriously,” he wrote, adding, “I will take a moment to sit down and re think everything.”

Awad did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post early Friday, including whether he is back in Canada. He added in a Thursday statement that he had chartered the private flight to “ensure everyone’s safety.” The passengers were tested for the coronavirus before the flight left Montreal, he wrote. It was the first trip organized by his 111 Private Club, he explained.

Awad wrote that, on Tuesday, Sunwing Airlines listed a number of conditions the group would be required to meet to board a flight back to Canada, including that everyone wear masks and be in a “sober condition.” He said he and the airline “couldn’t conclude an agreement” because of disagreements over the airline not wanting to provide in-flight meals.

Sunwing did not immediately respond to questions from The Post early Friday. In a statement to CNN, the airline said it canceled the flight “based on the group’s refusal to accept all terms and our security team’s assessment that non-compliance would be likely based on their previous disruptive onboard behavior.”

On Friday, Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that 27 of the passengers have arrived back in Canada. He said that they took four different flights and were interrogated and tested upon arrival.“

Their behavior was irresponsible and inexcusable and unacceptable,” Duclos told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa. He said that Quebec police had reached out to the Public Health Agency of Canada to obtain information about the travelers and that their files had been referred to Quebec officials “for penal and criminal issues.”

Awad said his club is “working tirelessly to get everyone back home safely as quickly as we can.” He added: “I have significantly learned, and I am still learning from this experience.”

Flight attendants and crew members around the country are training in self-defense with federal air marshals. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)