Air Transat passengers breach security at Edmonton airport after getting lost between planes

Peter Tryon says a security breach during an unexpected stopover at Edmonton International Airport nearly put him — and more than 50 other passengers — at risk of being arrested for illegally entering Canada.

'We all could have been thrown in jail,' says waylaid passenger

Air Transat said it is apologizing after a security breach at the Edmonton International Airport had 55 passengers inbound from Cuba temporarily skip Canadian customs. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Peter Tryon says a security breach during an unexpected stopover at Edmonton International Airport nearly put him and more than 50 other passengers at risk of being arrested for illegally entering Canada.

Air Transat is apologizing for the incident, which it describes as an unintentional breach of Canadian customs protocol. The airline said the passengers took a wrong turn while disembarking.

"They broke my Canadian rights by making me do something illegal," Tryon said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "We all could have been thrown in jail.

"They should give us an explanation."

Tryon was flying home from vacation in Varadero, Cuba on Nov. 28, when he and 54 other Vancouver-bound passengers were abruptly asked to get off in Edmonton to change planes.

They were being directed not toward customs but to a domestic departures area, said Tryon.

None of the Vancouver-bound passengers on flight TS 189 had boarding passes and they hadn't  cleared Canadian customs.

'This is a federal law' 

"We pulled into Gate 62, the Edmonton passengers got off, and then the stewardess comes on and says, 'For all you Vancouver people, please deplane, go up the ramp to Gate 64 and get on that plane over there.'

"We're all looking at each other going, 'Excuse me, we can't go up that ramp because we haven't gone through customs yet.' "

Tryon, who is from Qualicum Beach, B.C., said he complained to the flight crew, but was told the procedure was common practice.

"They were getting quite agitated with us so all of us remaining passengers, we decided we would get off the plane and get off the ramp into domestics and we're all looking at each other, thinking ugh, this is not good.

"We can't enter Canada without going through customs. This is breaking the law, big time.

"This is a federal law that we're going to be breaking."

The passengers made their way to the domestic departures area, but the gate was closed and unstaffed, said Tryon.

The gate to the customs area had been locked shut, he said.

A few minutes later, security and police arrived at the gate and confronted the passengers for failing to go through customs.

"We're getting a little nervous by now, and about five minutes later, down the ramp comes customs, RCMP and the Edmonton city police," said Tryon.

"And the officer said, 'What are you doing here? You realize you can't be here. We can detain you all for entering Canada illegally.'

"And we're all saying, 'We know this, Air Transat kicked us off the plane.' "
Waylaid passengers became frustrated after being deplaned from an Air Transat flight during an unexpected stopover in Edmonton. 0:22
Passenger Susan Phillips said she was baffled by the entire ordeal. She said the scene at Gate 64 was tense as bewildered passengers were ushered into a hallway and waited to be processed at customs.

Phillips captured the scene in a series of cellphone videos. In the footage, passengers can be heard bickering as Air Transat staff try to distribute boarding passe to the crowd.

"We were all very tired and confused … there was a lot of shouting," Phillips said in an email to CBC News.

She said she was hesitant to leave the plane and remains nervous about the security breach.  

"Being tired, irritated and confused by the disorganization, I did not successfully have my picture taken and passed through without a photo, which left me feeling anxious as to the consequences.

"The customs official waved me through."

The passengers weren't ushered onto their plane until well after midnight, Phillips said.

"Once on board our captain apologized for the 'fiasco.' However it was after 2 a.m. and like most people I was so tired and so enraged the apology was disregarded," Phillips said.

"The captain sounded just as perplexed at our chaotic treatment."

Airline says travellers took the 'wrong path' 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Air Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana said the disembarked passengers were supposed to pass through a "secured transit corridor" to an adjacent gate to reach the plane that would take them to Vancouver.

The "routine procedure" was planned in advance with full support from airport officials, Canada Border Services, ground operations and customer service personnel, Cabana said in the statement.

But during the transfer process, some passengers got lost, she said.

"During the aircraft transfer process, some Vancouver passengers took the wrong path and arrived at closed doors. They pushed/pulled on them repeatedly and the doors [emergency exit] eventually released," reads the statement.

"They went through, and other passengers followed … As a result of this, a CBSA breach of protocol occurred and all customers and Air Transat's crew were then mandated to report for inspection with their baggage at Canada Customs and Immigration.

"At no time did Air Transat attempt to disrespect Transport Canada's regulations or procedures, cause a security breach, or provide illegal access to allow passengers to arrive into Canada."

Air Transat said it is working with Edmonton International Airport to ensure a similar breach doesn't happen again. The airline apologized for the inconvenience.

The apology doesn't cut it for Tryon. He said the customs snafu was an embarrassment.

Disembarked passengers, who were eventually escorted to customs, were delayed by more than two hours, he said. Boarding passes had to be printed and rushed to travellers in the customs line, and many had their duty-free alcohol confiscated.

Once the waylaid passengers finally made it on the plane, the flight crew apologized over the PA system for the "slight inconvenience," and provided free snacks and beverages as "consolation," said Tryon.

"You almost had us arrested and thrown in jail, we're two hours behind, you had our booze confiscated and you call that a slight inconvenience?

"Oh, and the free drink, it was juice or water, and the treat was Nibs or a cookie."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC. 

With files from Julia Limpscombe