A Canadian flight crew detained in the Dominican Republic for more than 200 days is expected to be heading home soon, Global News has confirmed.
The crew of a Pivot Airlines flight was first detained in early April, after local authorities alleged drugs were found at Punta Cana International Airport. However, the Mississauga, Ont.-based airline has said the crew themselves were the ones who reported suspected drugs on board their aircraft.
After they shared their concerns with local authorities, however, the Pivot Airlines crew was detained — and the airline CEO says while they have remained in the country ever since, they’ve lived in fear, hiding from narco criminals furious with the crew’s decision to tell officials about the drugs.
“They’ve been in safe houses where we continue to move them,” said Pivot Airlines CEO Eric Edmondson in an interview with Global News.
A month, he said, would be “a long stay,” at the safe house, while “two to three weeks was the average stay at each place.” The crew had “24-seven armed security” and faced “a lot of restrictions around their free movement.”
As of Friday, however, the end of their harrowing ordeal appears to be in sight.
“Earlier today, paperwork was filed to free the five Pivot crew members who have been detained in the Dominican Republic for 220 days after reporting suspected contraband on their aircraft,” read a statement from Edmondson, sent to Global News on Friday.
“We are deeply relieved that these five Canadian will soon return home to their families and loved ones.”
Edmonson said he is “grateful” for the crew’s “courage, resilience, and honesty” throughout the “devastating” ordeal.
“When they return home to Canada, they will be returning as heroes,” he added.
Speaking to Global News in an interview on Friday, Edmondson said he was “elated” when he heard the news.
However, he’s not quite ready to celebrate — as there’s still “a fair number of steps to go.”
“You have to temper it with with the knowledge that we’ve been here, or very close to here, before. The only difference is we do have some signatures on this document and we retrieved it from the court,” Edmondson said.
“So it’s a little bit further down the road than we’ve been before, but we’ve been almost to this step two or three times for it to fall flat.”
The decision to send the crew home is still pending a final court sign-off, which will then kick off a process to grant the detained Canadians the necessary government documentation and approvals to fly home.
“There have been considerable delays and uncertainty throughout this case, and we are urging the Dominican Republic authorities to begin the process of releasing the crew without delay,” Edmondson said.
“Due to this uncertainty, and the very real potential for unforeseen delays, we do not yet have a timeline for the crew’s return.”
Even when they do get home, Edmondson said, what the airline crew have endured “will change them forever.”
“The crew have paid the ultimate price … they’ve lost their freedom. Not only did they lose their freedom, but they’re being hunted by narco criminals who they informed upon,” Edmondson said.
“I mean, that’s a horrible, horrible situation to be in. They lived in fear even when they were in their safe house.”
Pivot Airlines operates from Toronto Pearson International Airport. In mid-June, the crew released a video appealing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his help.
In the video, a pilot with the crew who identified himself as “Rob” said they discovered “suspected contraband” on their aircraft, which was destined for Canada.
Despite reporting their concerns “immediately” to both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Dominican authorities, the pilot said they were punished.
“The Dominicans threw us in jail,” he said.
The crew was initially imprisoned before being released on bail.
In May, Dominican Republic prosecutors sought to return the crew to jail for up to 12 months, according to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union representing the crew.
A report by the National Post said Dominican Republic prosecutors alleged the airliner was a drug-smuggling front, despite offering little actual evidence.
Meanwhile, the Pivot Airlines have been forced to reckon with what they described as a “nightmare” situation.
“We have been threatened with death by narco-criminals, extorted by inmates and have lived in inhumane and humiliating conditions,” the pilot said.
Trudeau met with the president of the Dominican Republic, Luis Abinader, on the margins of the Summit of the Americas on June 10, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The leaders recognized the many ties between their countries in trade and investment, as well as in the tourism sector,” a public statement said.
The statement also said Trudeau “raised the case of the Canadian air crew in the Dominican Republic” and that he was given “assurances that the authorities will address the matter according to the rule of law.”
Trying to get the Canadian government engaged, Edmondson said, was a “very slow process,” despite officials helping “tremendously” in the final push.
“They always had the right words with no action … Transport Canada has to look at the safety of the flying public between Canada and the Dominican Republic very seriously,” he said.
“They just have to they have to have more teeth.”
According to Edmondson, someone from the Canadian embassy told the crew that it was “too bad” they weren’t American.
The CEO did not specify where the embassy he referenced was located.
“Because if you were, this wouldn’t have happened — and if it did, you would have been out a day,” he said the embassy employee had told the crew.
Looking forward, Edmondson said he has concerns about the message the Dominican authorities have sent to other airline crews who might be faced with the choice to report or ignore illicit substances on their flights.
“The message that the Dominicans were sending by throwing our people in jail for … raising the alarm about those narcotics is — to all the other crew out there — don’t look for narcotics. If you find something, shut your mouth. We’re going to throw you in jail. You may never see your family again,” he said.
“And that is is just absolutely unsafe for the aviation community.”
— With files from Global News’ Sean O’Shea, Isaac Callan