Air Canada passengers demand answers after chaotic journey in the skies

Montrealers Ernie Picciano and Silvia Bruno went to Antigua for their 10th wedding anniversary, but they say it's the chaotic flight home they'll never forget.

Flight departing from Antigua results in aborted takeoff, emergency landing

'I was just completely frazzled,' says airline passenger Ernie Picciano after experiencing several problems on an Air Canada flight. His trip back home to Montreal from Antigua took 24 hours. (CBC)

Ernie Picciano spent the end of his week-long Caribbean getaway lying on the floor of a Puerto Rican hotel room. 

His wife, Silvia Bruno, struggled to sleep on an uncomfortable chair just beside him.

In the room's only bed slept a man in his 70s whom the couple had only met a couple of hours earlier. 

"There weren't enough hotel rooms so we told him we were going to take him in and have him sleep in our bed," said Picciano.

It was emblematic of what turned out to be a chaotic, 24-hour journey back to Montreal.

They and more than 100 other passengers had just spent hours stuck on an Air Canada airplane. 

They weren't even supposed to be in Puerto Rico.

Aborted takeoff

On June 3, flight AC 961 was set to takeoff from V. C. Bird International Airport in Antigua. 

But the flight to Toronto had problems from the start.

We went into a full emergency.- Ernie Picciano, passenger

Passengers have told CBC the first problem was with airplane toilets, which took more than an hour to fix.

Then, according to Air Canada, the flight was delayed because of inclement weather.

Daniel Fuller, from Burlington, Ont., said that after sitting on the tarmac for hours, and refuelling, the plane tried to take off again.

But he said that while speeding down the runway at more than 80 knots (150 kilometres per hour) the pilot slammed on the brakes. 

"We went into a full emergency, aborted, rejected takeoff. Tires locked up, smoking, the whole nine yards. It freaked all of us passengers out. Quite frankly, I thought that we might die at that moment."

Montrealers Ernie Picciano and Silvia Bruno went to Antigua for their 10th wedding anniversary, but they say it's the chaotic flight home they'll never forget. (Submitted by Ernie Picciano)
Air Canada said the reason for the aborted takeoff was a problem with a computer system.

"Probably the scaredest I've ever been in my life," said Fuller. "Until you've been in an aircraft running down the runway getting ready to take off and you hear the brakes lock up it wakes you up deep inside. You might say, 'This is my last couple of seconds here.' Terrifying."

Fuller wanted to get off the plane but said he wasn't given the opportunity. 

Emergency landing

Finally, four hours behind schedule, the Airbus 319 took off.

But it didn't stay in the air very long.

About 90 minutes into the five-hour flight to Toronto, the flight crew noticed a problem. 

According to Air Canada, the flight was "diverted en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico as a precaution after the aircraft developed a mechanical issue related to the fuel system."

That's when everybody looked at each other and started panicking.- Ernie Picciano, passenger

​Picciano said an already skittish planeload of passengers — many of whom felt the plane should have been grounded and inspected in Antigua — had to now deal with an emergency landing.

"That's when everybody looked at each other and started panicking again thinking, 'Oh my God, I should have gotten off the plane' — especially the ones with the kids," said Picciano.

Fuller said he has a lot of experience as an airline passenger but he's never experienced anything like this. 

"Probably the longest flight I've ever experienced after all those events that took place. I was just completely frazzled, my nerves, my anxiousness. I couldn't get back on the ground quick enough," he said. 

According to the Transportation Safety Board, the plane landed without incident in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A report from the TSB said "Operator's maintenance is investigating the cause of the fuel feed problem."
This is the path that flight AC 961 took on June 3 after leaving Antigua. (Submitted by passenger Stella Mercuri)

No hotel rooms, no food, passengers say

But the problems didn't end there.

Air Canada doesn't have a desk in San Juan so, according to several passengers, finding a place to sleep for the night was chaotic.

Picciano said the local hotels didn't have as many vacant rooms as Air Canada thought, which is why he and his wife ended up giving their bed to a fellow passenger. 

Diane Lemay from Pointe-Calumet, Que., said getting through the airport was agonizingly slow.

"San Juan wasn't expecting Air Canada to land to start off with. It was chaotic. People were still, I guess, in shock. The airport is closed, customs is closed so you have to wait for staff to come in. We were tired, we hadn't eaten."

Fuller said the flight crew were of little help on the plane.

"During this ordeal — we were in the plane I think approximately nine hours from the moment we stepped foot into this plane till the moment we stepped out of this plane in San Juan, Puerto Rico — I was only given three ounces of water," said Fuller. 

Others were upset the airline was still trying to make passengers pay for food despite the long delay. 

"They told us that they accept cash or credit card," said Picciano. "That meal should have been free but that wasn't done at all. They put merchandising ahead of their passengers. 

All the passengers eventually flew home on another plane, an Airbus 320, with another pilot.

Passengers start Facebook group

Passengers started a Facebook page and members say they are still looking for answers from Air Canada.

Some are upset with the pilot. A passenger filmed a conversation with him in San Juan where he talked about his 30 years of experience and suggested a less experienced pilot may not have landed the plane safely.

Fuller said the comments prove his initial suspicion that something was wrong with the plane. 

"I question the pilot's judgment of putting us back in the air in Antigua."

But Lemay, who is terrified of flying, said she trusted the pilot.

"It was scary but I believe that the guy did a great job because would it have been someone else who made a bad judgment call and we would have taken off (instead of aborting in Antigua). God knows what would have happened so hats off to him."

Lemay said it's unlikely the pilot would have put an untrustworthy aircraft in the sky. "I'm assuming that if he took the chance to leave then everything was fine."

Many of the 117 passengers are upset with how they were treated by Air Canada.

Picciano said he wants the airline industry to learn from this and improve how it treats customers. He's so shaken from the incident he has had to take time off work and has been referred to a psychologist.

Air Canada is 'sorry about this experience'

Air Canada refused interview requests, but spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email the company understands customers are disappointed.

"Our crews are trained to behave professionally and operate safely at all times. We are sorry about this experience and our Customer Relations department has been dealing with the customers directly."

The airline offered passengers a 30 per cent discount on their next flight, plus a $500 flight voucher.