The San Juan Daily Star
Airlines strand passengers who partied on flight without masks
By Maria Cramer
It was promoted as a New Year’s Eve celebration in Cancún, Mexico — a six-night trip that included parties with open bars and a day exploring Tulum, a popular tourist destination in the Yucatán Peninsula known for its ancient ruins and the turquoise water of its beaches.
It would begin with a privately chartered plane from Montreal where the guests — a coterie of Canadian social media influencers, reality TV personalities and others — would be entertained by a DJ on the flight to Mexico.
But the trip has turned into a fiasco, with airlines shunning the group and stranding many of its members and the Canadian authorities vowing to investigate after videos of the passengers surfaced on social media showing them flouting Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions.
In the videos, the passengers are seen dancing and jumping in the aisles, yelling without masks on and passing around bottles of alcohol. One woman can be seen vaping in the cabin. Another passenger, his mask hanging under his chin, yells at his fellow travelers over the cabin intercom to sit down and then “to keep the energy up.”
“Let’s hear some noise, welcome to 111 Private Club!” the same passenger says in a video, referring to an online group described as “invitation only” that was founded by James William Awad, a musician and self-described entrepreneur who organized the trip. The passengers, many of them without masks on, yell back in approval.
About 27 of the 130 passengers on the flight are back in Canada, the country’s health minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, told reporters Friday.
“They were all stopped and interrogated at the border,” he said, adding that they were tested for COVID and asked about their proof of vaccination and their quarantine plans.
Many passengers apparently remained stranded in Mexico after at least three airlines said they would not fly them back.
“The 111 private club is working tirelessly to get everyone back home safely as quickly as we can,” Awad said in a statement posted Thursday on a personal blog. “I understand why many fellow citizens are upset about the current situation,” he said earlier in the statement. “As someone who enjoys bringing people together, I committed to hosting a private and safe event in Cancún with my group from the 111 private club.”
Transport Canada, the country’s transportation authority, said it was investigating the conduct of the passengers, who could face fines of up to $5,000 for violating Canada’s COVID restrictions, which forbid passengers from traveling without masks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the behavior seen on the plane “a slap in the face” to people who have abided by COVID restrictions on planes and at home.
“I think, like all Canadians who’ve seen those videos, I’m extremely frustrated,” he said. “We know how hard people have worked to keep themselves safe, to limit their family gatherings at Christmastime, to wear masks, to get vaccinated, to do all the right things.”
Sunwing Airlines, which flew the group to Cancún on Dec. 30, said it canceled the return flight to Canada after an internal investigation found that the passengers “exhibited unruly behavior and did not respect aviation or public health regulations.”
“Our decision to cancel the return flight was based on the group’s refusal to accept all terms and our security team’s assessment that noncompliance would be likely based on their previous disruptive onboard behavior,” the company said in a statement Friday.
Awad said in his statement that he had agreed to “every demand” made by the airline but had objected to Sunwing’s refusal to provide meals during the five-hour return flight. He later wrote on Twitter that the sticking point was not over meals and that he had “simply asked Sunwing to try and do something about it.”
In its statement, Sunwing did not elaborate on how the flight crew responded to the passengers or whether the captain was aware of what was happening during the flight to Mexico.
Air Canada said it denied flights to 19 people who were linked to the group, according to CTV News.
“To the extent that we can identify the passengers who were part of the group, we are denying boarding to ensure the safety of other passengers and our crews,” Air Canada said.
Air Transat, another Canadian airline, said on Twitter that it refused to take the passengers back home after they tried to book a flight through the airline.
“We confirm that 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 Transat said.
The passengers crowding the aisles compromised the ability of flight attendants to move through the cabin and help anyone who could have been hurt or needed medical attention, said Mark Millam, vice president of technical programs for Flight Safety Foundation, which provides safety guidelines for the aviation and aerospace industry.
Had sudden turbulence hit the airplane, the passengers standing in the aisles could have been seriously injured, Millam said. “The aircraft wasn’t designed to be a dance floor,” he said.
In his statement, Awad said the trip was the first travel event planned by the 111 Private Club, which he described as “a dream and a vision.”
He added: “I have significantly learned, and I am still learning from this experience.”