Passengers speak out after losing Air Transat's 'Mexican game'
Sunwing also makes refuelling stops on flights advertised as direct, passengers say
Jessica Spencer's dream of a destination wedding surrounded by her closest friends and family almost came off without a hitch. The ceremony — and the rousing reception that followed — were magical.
A white sand beach. Decorations in Tiffany blue. The sun shining, with the Gulf of Mexico as a backdrop.
Unfortunately, Spencer's flights with Air Transat subcontractors, Flair Air, "definitely took some of the magic away."
The five-hour, 50-minute flight from Kelowna, B.C., to Cancun on Jan. 21 had an unexpected stop in Calgary to refuel, which meant the country music-loving couple and their guests missed a concert by Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Luke Bryan. She wondered how much fuel capacity the planes lack if they have to fly an hour east to refuel so they can make it safely to Cancun.
The planes themselves were "like a 1980s Greyhound bus," Spencer told CBC News, with no entertainment and no vegan food options for passengers, who had to endure a now-eight-hour journey.
On the northbound trip back, Spencer said she and her husband were lied to about another impending refuelling stop — until they got ready to board the plane.
"From a bride and groom's perspective, working so hard to plan every detail, I was quite embarrassed for having chosen Air Transat for us [and 26] of our guests," said Spencer, a 33-year-old accountant now living in Victoria.
The Spencers' story is one of a flood of responses CBC received from Canadians who had dealt with Air Transat's choice of Flair Air to handle some of its Mexican flights. Flair has a fleet of older planes that can only reach destinations like Cancun without stopping under ideal flying conditions.
A CBC News investigation found Air Transat and Flair misled passengers and aviation officials about its flights using an elaborate scheme referred to as "The Mexican Game."
Not so rare?
Air Transat told CBC News that unscheduled refuelling stops this past winter were rare occasions.
But CBC's investigation found 11 consecutive flights on one route — from Jan. 28 to April 8 — had experienced stopovers not listed on the itineraries.
And passengers say this practice has continued.
"Literally sitting in a Flair Airline plane in Calgary … right now," Michael Smeland wrote to CBC yesterday, while sitting on the tarmac at 1 a.m., having left Cancun eight hours earlier. The plane would continue on to Edmonton.
While still in Mexico, he said his flight was told the plane would have to stop to refuel in New Orleans, though they ended up stopping in Winnipeg.
"Multiple families on this flight that didn't plan for this extended flying," Smeland wrote, adding that passengers were making a lot of passive-aggressive comments. "It's tough on the young kids, the constant landing and taking off."
Many who contacted CBC said they sought out — and paid more for — non-stop flights, either to maximize vacation time, for convenience, or to ease the burden on aging parents or young children with ear pressure issues.
'We do not promote our flights as non-stop'
Two weeks earlier, that same Cancun-to-Edmonton flight turned into a nightmare for several passengers, when their return journey lasted almost an entire day.
"As soon as we were … like an hour into the flight, the pilot came on and said that we're not going to have enough fuel to make it to Calgary and we're going to have to stop in Regina for refuelling," wrote Jo-Ann Wall, who was travelling with her 80-year-old mother. "We get to Regina, we sat on the plane for maybe three hours, waiting for customs so we could get off the plane."
When the Boeing 737-400 landed, it ended up with a flat tire and brake issues. Passengers were left aboard with no food, few drinks and toilets that hadn't worked for some time.
By 1:30 a.m., the airport's now-skeletal staff directed passengers to their hotel rooms, asking them to return early the next day for the final leg.
When they returned to carry on to Calgary and Edmonton, the plane's toilets hadn't been fixed and the aircraft hadn't been cleaned. Wall, who said she felt misled by the airline, called it the "worst experience of my life."
Another passenger on that flight, Brendan Milne, also called it his worst travelling experience. "It's one thing to be forthcoming with a route change, but to not inform guests of this blatant reroute is both immoral and deceiving."
In response to a complaint from the Spencers about their flights to and from their Cancun wedding, Air Transat said its flights "are subject to consolidations and changes" which "can occur at any time."
The airline also wrote: "It is … important to clarify that we do not promote our flights as non-stop and, as you must know, direct flights may entail stops along the way."
The Spencers called that answer "a cop-out" as the company's website trumpets "Fly direct!" without mentioning the possibility of stops along the way.
Air Transat not alone
Air Transat isn't the only operator being accused of making unscheduled stops.
"Our pilot announced that we would be flying into strong headwinds [and] would require to stop in Regina around midnight," said David Stinson, referring to a Cancun-to-Kelowna flight he took with Sunwing earlier this year.
Stinson, who has a heart condition that can be aggravated by long flights, said he knew when he booked that "direct" isn't the same as non-stop. But he said he had booked the flight because the itinerary didn't list any stops.
"I think it is very misleading of an airline to book passengers on a direct flight if, in fact, they knew there would not be a direct flight home."
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In a statement, Sunwing — which promotes "convenient direct service" on flights to the south — said: "We do operate a handful of scheduled fuel tech stops on the return portion of our Western Canada routes. These are indicated at the time of booking and the total flight duration is reflective of this brief stop.
"On very rare occasions when our payload (combined passenger weights and baggage) is heavier than anticipated and/or we are facing strong headwinds, we are forced to make an unscheduled fuel tech stop."
It's not unusual for airlines to have to stop and refuel, said Simon Vaughan, a travel-industry expert and senior editor at Outpost magazine.
But direct-flight itineraries should list a stop, he said, particularly if that flight stops to refuel on 11 consecutive occasions.
"If you click on that flight ... it should specifically say there 'via' and give you the three letter airport code. You need to be aware of what 'Via MSY' means," said Vaughan, giving a code for New Orleans. "Because they probably won't volunteer that information."
When asked specific questions about why Flair Air, for example, has to stop in Calgary to refuel on a Kelowna-to-Cancun flight, Air Transat did not answer. But a spokesperson said the number of complaints received by the airline "is minimal in relation to the total number of flights we operate."