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Air Canada passengers recount 'hellish journey' to Toronto after 10 delays, 1 cancelled flight

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Ten delays, one cancellation, and about 27 hours later, Air Canada travellers trying to jet out of Fort Lauderdale finally made what one of them is calling a “hellish journey” back to Toronto.

“I was actually supposed to go to the funeral of a close family friend,” Shama Ansari told CTV News Toronto on Thursday morning. “Which was very, very sad and heartbreaking because that was something we had planned to be there and help with as well.”

On Sunday evening flight AC1029 out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was initially scheduled to depart for Toronto at 9:15 p.m.

But an hour before departure, passengers received their first delay notice of the evening saying the flight would now depart at 10:30 p.m., citing “airport limitations.” While the notice provides examples of what that means – including various technical issues – it does not explain outright why this particular flight was delayed.

Then, a second delay notice rolled in shortly after 9 p.m., with the flight pushed back to 11 p.m. Minutes before 10 p.m., the flight was delayed to 11:50 p.m. Shortly after 11 p.m., the flight was further delayed to 12:30 a.m.

Just after 12:15 a.m., Air Canada cancelled the flight outright.

“We’re very sorry, this flight is cancelled because of weather conditions at the departure airport, destination airport, or en route,” the cancellation email, reviewed by CTV News Toronto, reads.

“People were losing their minds,” Madison Golshani told CTV News Toronto. Twenty-three-year-old Jamilah Sharpe-Riley said she “instantly” panicked, as she is 32 weeks pregnant and was flying back home alone.

“I’ve seen on the news where people are like, ‘Oh, I’m stranded,’ […] that was my worst fear,” Sharpe-Riley said.

The flight was rescheduled to leave Monday at 4:15 p.m., and passengers said the airline did not offer any hotel vouchers.

Sharpe-Riley, speaking to an Air Canada representative at the airport, tried to get answers.

“I was like, ‘Listen, I’m pregnant, and I’m alone […] I can’t even buy water, like everything’s closed. Are there no food or hotel vouchers?’” Sharpe-Riley said, who added she was later given two $15 meal vouchers that were only valid at airport restaurants. “All my friends that were travelling had already left, so where do you expect me to go? I can’t even go back to the gate if I wanted to sleep here […] because security is closed.”

Ansari said she and her family scrambled to find a hotel. Ansari was travelling with her husband, three children and her 72-year-old mother, who is in a wheelchair.

“To get a hotel, when it's past midnight, is not easy at all,” Ansari told CTV News Toronto. “It was very difficult for my husband to find a hotel for the six of us.”

Air Canada fliers departing from Fort Lauderdale to Toronto share their "hellish" experience after 10 delays and a flight cancellation. (Jamilah Sharpe-Riley)

'Mob situation'

The litany of delays continued into Monday, with the first notice issued to passengers just before 10:30 a.m., informing them the flight had been delayed to 5:15 p.m.

“From then, I was already worried because I was like, ‘How do you know how many hours before that we’re gonna be delayed already, like the day just started,’” Sharpe-Riley said, who had managed to find a place to stay with friends in Miami Beach, about an hour away from the airport.

As for what happened Monday, Golshani said they all watched “quite literally the same thing unfold.”

Passengers didn’t receive another notice of their flight being further delayed until 3:25 p.m., when they were all already at the airport and were told the flight would not leave until 6:15 p.m.

“What triggered everyone is [they] keep making excuses. You’re not telling us why, you didn’t offer us food vouchers, we had to find out word-of-mouth,” Bruce Robinson, who was travelling with his wife Ranjini Nair, told CTV News Toronto.

All of the passengers who spoke to CTV News Toronto said food vouchers were only given when they were asked for, and they were not all equal in value – some were given $15 vouchers, others $60. Other Air Canada flights, they add, had also departed from Fort Lauderdale airport with seemingly no issue.

A picture of the flight delays at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. (Bob Zaki)

Kim Soloweyko questioned one of the Air Canada employees at gate D4 why there was a discrepancy among vouchers, and said she was told, “Not all animals in the barn are the same, ya know.”

When Ansari’s mother tried speaking with one of the Air Canada staff at the airport for an idea of when they would leave, she said that she was also met with rude comments.

“He actually said to her, ‘You need to turn around and wheel yourself away because I am a concierge dealing with Premier Elite travelers,” Ansari said. “She was very insulted.”

The flight was delayed four more times, with the final delay announcement at 9:26 p.m. – just over 24 hours from when they were scheduled to leave on Sunday.

“What triggered the sort of a bit of a mob situation was our original flight 1029, which is on the Sunday, the same flight on Monday, they allowed that to go out before we got to go,” Robinson said. “As soon as they announced that, the crowd went nuts and then we’re all yelling at them, ‘You goddamn guys, do the right thing to get us out of here. This is not right. Do the right thing.’”

Passengers started running towards the airline counter, screaming, Sharpe-Riley said, adding there were about three sheriffs that arrived at the gate.

Golshani noted there was a tense energy in the room, but said she never felt at any point that she was unsafe or that the crowd would riot.

“We started to say to each other like, ‘Are they trying to quarantine us for a reason? They won’t let us on this plane,’” Golshani said. “It just felt crazy. It felt unbelievable that this was happening.”

A spokesperson for Broward's Sheriff's Office said deputies responded "to a disturbance" in Terminal 2 of the airport at around 9:15 p.m., but did not provide further details.

“Due to lingering aircraft congestion at the airport Monday, there was a delay in obtaining a gate, as the airport has only one gate available to us that can handle a wide-body aircraft. Once we got access to the gate that could accommodate our aircraft, we were able to board the aircraft and depart,” Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

The flight finally departed at midnight, landing at Toronto Pearson International Airport at around 3 a.m.

So, why was the flight heavily delayed in the first place?

Fitzpatrick stated that the Sunday evening flight was cancelled due to “adverse weather conditions,” as four tornadoes swept through Miami that afternoon.

Flight AC2129 was added on Monday to pick up all passengers whose travel plans were disrupted on Sunday.

“The severe weather over the weekend led to flight cancellations Sunday to Fort Lauderdale, including of our flight to Toronto, AC1029,” Fitzpatrick said.

As for why hotel vouchers were not offered to passengers Sunday night, Fitzpatrick said rooms were scarce “due to the situation affecting all airlines” at the Fort Lauderdale airport that evening.

He also noted that the airline is not required to make hotel vouchers available when flights are disrupted due to weather.

“Although we will make our best efforts in such situations, you should understand that because this was a weather event beyond our control, [Air Passenger Protection does] not oblige airlines to provide hotels because the rules recognize carriers cannot assume weather as a liability,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Nonetheless we will be providing affected customers a goodwill gesture in recognition of the inconvenience they experienced.”

Robinson and Nair said that they received eCoupons valued at $650. Golshani said that she received a one-time discount of 20 per cent off the base fare for her next Air Canada flight after filing a complaint with the airline.

When a flight is delayed by more than nine hours, and within the airline’s control, large airlines like Air Canada are required under APPR to pay passengers $1,000. When it is between six to nine hours, they are to pay $700.

“I’m just talking personally now, I want a public apology. I want at least $1,700 per person for the cancellation,” Robinson said. “I don’t want a voucher, I want my money.”

CTV News Toronto repeatedly contacted the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for comment but did not receive a response. 

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