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Sunwing party flight shows need for stronger rules, flight attendants say

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.

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 charter 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 vaped and snapped 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 (CUPE) 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.

Ottawa should also mandate a rapid test closer to the time of departure on most flights, he added, on top of the currently required molecular test taken up to 72 hours before takeoff by passengers entering Canada.

"The government comes out with many recommendations; recommendations don't have teeth," Lesosky said.

The Transport Department said Canada has some of the "most stringent penalties" on the continent.

"The department continues to strictly enforce all measures, including masking requirements, and more than 600 investigations have taken place, some of which have resulted in the issuance of monetary penalties," spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said in an email.

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 CUPE 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 in a phone interview.

"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 Minister Omar Alghabra as well as the health and public safety ministers said in a release Tuesday that officials in their departments will immediately launch an investigation into the Sunwing incident, citing "unacceptable behaviour and cases of non-compliance with mask wearing and other air safety requirements."

The ministers and Sunwing both said the "health and safety" of flight crews and passengers are a "top priority."

Sunwing, which resumed commercial flights in November after grounding its fleet for eight months, said it cancelled the group's return flight from Cancun scheduled for Wednesday, saying the unruly behaviour had contravened several federal aviation regulations as well as public health rules. Air Transat has refused to transport the passengers.

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, said Kisfalvi.

“I’m not sure where Transport Canada is on this. Why haven’t you done more?” she asked.

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.

Conservative transport critic Pierre Poilievre called on the government to demand Sunwing repay the federal funds it received over the past year.

"It just seems that all the elites are able to get on planes and go to fancy places and enjoy wonderful vacations with no masks on, giving sloppy kisses to each other and pounding back bottle after bottle of high-priced champagne, laughing at what they consider to be the little people who are back home paying the price of this pandemic," Poilievre told reporters in Ottawa.

“It’s about time that we stand up to this hypocrisy and punish companies that facilitate it.”

Under a pair of deals announced in February and June respectively, Ottawa agreed to lend Sunwing up to $375 million and a further $100 million to provide refunds to customers whose trips were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press