Hurricane Irma: Canadians stranded in storm’s path struggle to come home

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Canadians stranded in the Caribbean were rushing to find a way back home Wednesday, as Hurricane Irma circled down on islands in the area.

Air Transat, WestJet, and Air Canada sent planes to retrieve their passengers from Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos, but several travellers expressed frustration at the process.

READ MORE: Air Transat, WestJet and Air Canada sending additional flights to Caribbean

In an interview with Global News, an Oshawa, Ont. father slammed Air Canada for its delayed response to the storm.

His son, Chris, arrived in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, for a wedding Monday, but was told the resort was in the storm’s path the next day.

Chris Baker took an Air Canada flight to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic earlier this week. Supplied by Andy Baker

“I spent four hours on the phone today trying to get some answers,” the father said. “Air Canada should have been there first thing this morning.”

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The carrier later made arrangements for Chris and his friends, which the father said was “a great burden lifted.”

“I’m not very happy at all with Air Canada. Yes, they are going in now, that’s fine, but it look way too long.”

Another story of frustration came from Mauricio Bravo, who was in Punta Cana with his wife and two teenage children when Global News spoke to him Wednesday morning.

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Bravo was staying at Ocean Blue and Sand Resort, along with about 20 other Canadians who also booked their getaway with Air Canada Vacations. He said another Canadian at the resort, who had booked through either WestJet or Air Transat, had gone home.

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“They got a call yesterday, telling them sorry we’re going to have to take you out of Dominican, because we don’t want any problems with the hurricane,” he explained.

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“We don’t get any clear information from anyone. We’re starting to make some noise to see if we can get out of here today.”

LIVE UPDATES: Tracking Hurricane Irma’s path

When asked about troubles experienced by passengers, Air Canada said they are actively addressing concerns.

“We have been very active working to assist customers (in fact if you Google Air Canada news you will see reports on our activity 21 hours ago). We have been adding capacity as needed, with extra flights and larger aircraft.”

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The email statement added that the carrier’s largest aircraft,  a 450-seat Boeing 777, will fly out to Punta Cana Wednesday to pick up customers.

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“As you can appreciate, this is an evolving situation so we have to assess the progress of the storm and deploy our capacity where needed to assist customers and we will continue to monitor and add capacity.”

But Air Canada passengers weren’t the only ones experiencing delayed responses.

READ MORE: Calgary woman stuck in Hurricane Irma’s path frustrated with Air Canada’s response

Sophie Baldwin of Montreal spoke to Global News from the Providenciales International Airport in Turks and Caicos, as she awaited her WestJet flight back home.

“For me, it has been very, very easy,” she said, explaining that she messaged WestJet on Facebook at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. The same morning, the carrier replied with a reservation code for her flight back home.

The scene inside the Turks and Caicos Island’s airport as WestJet passengers wait to board a flight Wednesday afternoon. Supplied Sophie Baldwin

However, the friends that she was vacationing with also flew WestJet and are currently stranded on the island. She added the airport closes at 6 p.m., meaning there is little chance her friends will get home today.

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Baldwin claimed WestJet’s media statement that the number of flights they’re sending to retrieve passengers matches the number of travellers affected is false.

WestJet said it is sending four planes to the Dominican Republic – three to Punta Cana, one to Puerto Plata – and one flight to Turks and Caicos.

 The three airlines did not specify how many passengers have been affected.
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Meanwhile, American Airlines has also added extra flights out of the Caribbean islands of St. Maarten and St. Kitts and Nevis. Other U.S. carriers including Delta Airlines, United and Southwest are waiving change and cancellation fees or cancelling some flights to parts of the Caribbean this week.

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The Canadians interviewed by Global News all said they were unaware of how powerful Hurricane Irma would be.

READ MORE: What Canadians should know about Hurricane Irma

Baldwin said it was categorized as a tropical storm that would likely miss Turks and Caicos, when she left home on Sept.2.

The Government of Canada has issued travel advisories for numerous Caribbean islands, along with Florida. It has urged Canadians to avoid all travel to 11 Caribbean islands, and exercise a high degree of caution when in several other areas of the storm’s path.

READ MORE: London-area family waiting for evacuation flight out of Punta Cana as storm draws closer

In an email to Global News, Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell said the government is closely monitoring the hurricane.

“Due to the unpredictable eventual path and strength of Hurricane Irma, we are advising all Canadians to be prepared, have a plan, and most importantly, follow the advice of local authorities.”

— With files from Global News reporter Andrew Russell 

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