Passengers were in tears hours after arriving safely at Halifax Stanfield International Airport early Thursday. 

The massive Maritime spring storm that saw winds gusting as high as 160 km/h in parts of Nova Scotia, made for a white-knuckled ride for passengers trying to land.

Passengers from an Air Transat flight from Cuba say it took three attempts and a two-hour layover in Montreal to get them safely on the ground in Halifax.

Tami Cushing of Bridgewater said the pilot first tried to land around 8 p.m. last night, but the plane was rocked by winds and the pilot pulled up at the last minute.

She said the plane then went to Montreal before heading back to Halifax around 3 a.m.

Bridget Michaud of Fredericton said what happened next was terrifying.

"He tried to land and it was like a blizzard outside. It was like being in a hurricane," she said through tears, four hours after arriving.

Passengers say that second attempt to land was much worse than the first with the plane bucking, rocking and turning on its side.

Tami Cushing

Tami Cushing of Bridgewater says the pilot first tried to land around 8 p.m. last night, but the plane was rocked by winds and the pilot pulled up at the last minute. (Phonse Jessome/CBC)

Holly Glassford of Truro said the pilot pulled out of that landing attempt as well. She said the flight then circled above Halifax for "what seemed like forever," and then finally landed.

She said people were sick on the plane during the landing.

Cushing said the touchdown was so rough she thought the tires exploded.

Still, she said passengers immediately began to applaud the pilot. Many of the passengers remained at the airport after the landing, because the highways outside were too treacherous for them to drive home.

Who decides when it's safe to land?

Despite high winds, blowing snow, and dozens of flight cancellations Wednesday and Thursday, at least one other flight was able to land safely at the airport around the same time as the Air Transat flight from Cuba.

The decision of determining when it's safe to land is a three-stage process that is ultimately decided by the pilot of an aircraft.

Debbie Cabana, a spokeswoman for Air Transat, acknowledged to CBC News it was a "turbulent" landing and said passenger safety is paramount. The pilot, tower and ground crew all agreed it was safe to land at the time, she said.

The first step in deciding whether it's safe to land is determined by crews on the ground. At one point during Wednesday's storm, snow was falling at a rate of more than 10 centimetres per hour at the airport. Crews were unable to keep up with snow removal and flights were cancelled. 

If the ground crew can safely clear the runways, the next step in deciding whether a plane can land safely is determined in the air traffic control tower. 

However, if a pilot feels conditions are unsafe — despite given the all-clear by the ground crew and tower — he or she can make the decision not to land.