The taxi and takeoff aboard Sunwing Airlines flight 772 on July 25 was smooth and uneventful. Pryia Hassan, her husband and ten-year-old children were mere hours away from a Panamian resort vacation.
But 45 minutes into the trip flying over West Virginia, the captain turned back for Toronto’s Pearson Airport, initiating a rapid descent and braking hard to get the Boeing 737-800 onto the ground. Then, the Hassans and other passengers would see a Peel police tactical unit face-to-face, ordered to keep “hands up” and “heads down.”
“We didn’t know who these people were that came on with their assault weapons pointed at innocent people,” she said, referring to heavily armed police who boarded the aircraft and arrested 25-year-old Ali Shahi, who faces charges of endangering the safety of an aircraft and uttering threats.
But now, many of the 183 passengers on the flight are expressing anger at Sunwing, alleging the airline abandoned them during the ordeal and in the hours and days that followed.
“The flight crew hid behind the curtains,” said Hassan.
“They were very disorganized, communicated poorly and did not even inquire about their passengers well-being after the bomb threat incident,” passenger Melissa Malcolm told Global News.
Passengers were put on a later flight to Panama. But, to the shock of many, that flight had to be diverted to Jamaica for a medical emergency.
“Unfortunately, part way through the flight, a customer fainted in the back galley while waiting for the lavatory and hit her head,” said Janine Chapman, vice president of marketing for Sunwing.
Passengers didn’t fault Sunwing for landing to help the injured woman. But they say the airline’s captain announced he had to wait for a full medical kit to be brought aboard the plane before he could depart for Panama from Montego Bay. Passengers say Sunwing didn’t load customs forms for Panama ahead of time, and there was no running water in one of the onboard washrooms and no hot water in the food galley.
Many passengers say Sunwing provided little or no support for them on arrival in Panama, some suggesting they were traumatized by having guns pointed at them in Toronto.
“Instead of guiding them through this situation, they abandoned them,” said Renee Vinett, a Toronto personal injury lawyer. “That is a scary situation for passengers to be in.”
On the return, passengers were unwittingly part of an inaugural Sunwing flight from Panama’s new Scarlet Martinez International Airport. Prior to departure, passengers say they were told by the captain the aircraft was too heavy for a safe departure on the assigned runway.
“As a result, we offloaded a staff member as well as some luggage so that we could accommodate all of our customers. This decision was clearly communicated to the impacted customers at the time,” said Chapman, explaining Sunwing’s decision to remove about 90 bags from the plane.
Pryia Hassan says passengers were terrified when the captain said the plane would “smack into the mountain” if the bags were not taken off the aircraft. Some passengers say they still have not received their luggage
Sunwing offered travel vouchers as compensation to customers unhappy with their holiday ordeals.
“Ridiculous. $75 is nowhere near what they should be offering,” said Tanya Croke. “We missed a whole day of our vacation and the events dampened the whole week.”
Hassan agrees: “To simply offer a $75 voucher after everything that we went through is completely unreasonable and unjust and quite frankly insulting.