2-hour Air Canada flight to Yukon becomes 2-day international journey

A two-hour flight from B.C. to Yukon turned into a frustrating two-day international tour for dozens of passengers this week.

'We just didn't have a clue what was going on,' a passenger laments

Some Air Canada passengers arrived at the Whitehorse airport early Wednesday afternoon on the airplane photographed here — more than 36 hours late. More passengers are expected to arrive later Wednesday. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

A two-hour flight from B.C. to Yukon turned into a frustrating two-day international tour for dozens of passengers this week.

Air Canada's 88 passengers began their journey late Monday night, flying out of Vancouver. They were headed for Whitehorse, but ended up in Anchorage, Alaska, for a night, and then were flown back to Vancouver for another night.

Some of the passengers finally arrived in Whitehorse early Wednesday afternoon — more than 36 hours late. Others were expected to arrive on a later flight on Wednesday.

"This is an inconvenience, but nobody has been out in the cold," said Thea Rogers on Tuesday evening from Anchorage. She was one of the passengers trying to get home to Whitehorse.

"My one criticism is the lack of communication with Air Canada — you know, we just didn't have a clue what was going on."

Rogers described how the initial flight was uneventful until the very end.

"In fact, I thought we had landed. It kind of got that bumpy — [like] when the wheels hit the ground — and you know, that 'thunk.' And then it was this sharp up, up, up, up and everybody's like, 'Oh, I don't think we're landing.'"

She said they flew for another 15 minutes or so before an announcement was made, telling them they were going to Anchorage. 

"[There was] no information as to why we're going to Anchorage, and not returning to Vancouver," she said.

Another diversion

Rogers said passengers were still in the dark once the plane landed in Alaska. After about half an hour on the tarmac, they were told they would spend the night.

"Then they didn't tell us whether we were going to simply be sleeping on the chairs in the security area, or whether we would actually be able to leave. I didn't think we could leave, without passports."

The airport in Anchorage, Alaska — an unexpected destination for the Yukon-bound passengers this week. (Simon Charland/CBC)

The passengers were put up in a local hotel for the night. Rogers has no complaints there — she said the hotel staff in Anchorage were extremely friendly and helpful, and in fact, more helpful than Air Canada.

She said on Tuesday, it was frustrating trying to find out what was going on.

"The guy who drove us to the airport had more information than any Air Canada person."

Diversions are extremely rare, and diversions that result in an overnight are even rarer.- Air Canada spokesperson in an email

In an email to CBC News on Tuesday, an Air Canada spokesperson said the flight was diverted from Whitehorse "due to the weather limits for landing in Whitehorse."

"Anchorage was the optimal diversion location for this flight yesterday for operational reasons ... Diversions are extremely rare, and diversions that result in an overnight are even rarer."

In a followup email, the airline referred to "low ceilings" at Whitehorse that may have made landing unsafe. The city has been overcast with periods of snow in recent days.

The flight eventually left Anchorage later Tuesday, and headed to Whitehorse — but again, weather prevented a landing. The plane went to Vancouver for another night.

Passenger Roger Gauthier said people on the plane "couldn't believe it."

"We flew over Whitehorse, we could actually see the lights down below," he said.

Another Air Canada flight to Whitehorse was also diverted back to Vancouver on Tuesday, and two more flights after that were cancelled.

Gauthier said it was "total chaos" when they arrived back in Vancouver, as passengers were directed through customs and told where to pick up meal vouchers. 

Arriving in Whitehorse on Wednesday, he said he's likely out a couple of days' pay because of missed work. His main complaint, though, was being kept in the dark by Air Canada.

"Major lack of communications — since Monday," he said. 

New passenger protection rules 

Air North, meanwhile, was able to fly as scheduled to Whitehorse. Company president Joe Sparling said that's because his aircraft have GPS equipment that allows them to land in low visibility.

New air passenger protection rules came into effect on Sunday in Canada, dealing with compensation for passengers on delayed or cancelled flights — large airlines like Air Canada now have to pay a passenger up to $1,000 for flights delayed more than nine hours. 

According to the regulations, airlines don't have to pay if the flight is delayed or cancelled due to uncontrollable factors such as bad weather.

The arrivals area at Whitehorse airport. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Lisa Schroeder, visiting Whitehorse from Manitoba, said on Wednesday that her long journey was disappointing, but she wasn't too bothered.

"Nobody can control the weather, and we were very thankful that the pilot made a wise decision," she said.

She says passengers were warned before takeoff on Wednesday that they still might not be able to land in Whitehorse, as skies were still not clear.

"We just prayed that God would open up the door so that we could land safely, and He did. And we're very grateful," she said. 

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Mike Rudyk and Dave White