Nova Scotia

Unruly Sunwing passengers fuel Cape Breton notoriety

The story of a Cape Breton family accused of smoking aboard a Sunwing Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic has put a small community on the map.

Incident on flight to Dominican Republic becomes hot topic in social media

The MacNeils are fast becoming one of the most famous Cape Breton families, but for all the wrong reasons. (Photo courtesy of

The story of a Cape Breton family accused of smoking aboard a Sunwing Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic has put a small community on the map, but at least one woman says the people described in the incident don't sound like the family she knows.

Three members of the MacNeil family — David MacNeil, 54, Darlene MacNeil, 52, and David MacNeil Jr., 22 — were arrested after a south-bound flight last week had to be diverted to Bermuda when at least one MacNeil was accused of smoking on the plane. A younger, unidentified son was also on the flight.

Debra Wilson, who has worked for the MacNeils for the past seven years at Mabou Mining Inc. outside Sudbury, Ont., told CBC News she was "blown away" to hear the MacNeils were the ones charged after the alleged smoking incident.

Wilson said the allegations were completely out of character and don't match the family she's come to know.

On Tuesday afternoon, Darlene MacNeil told CBC News by phone from Bermuda's airport that her family was waiting for a flight home. She said that when the family returns safely to Canada, they'll tell their side of the story.

"Not at this point, I can't," MacNeil said. "We definitely have things to say, but at this point we just want to get our family home."

The incident has sparked discussions on social media about Cape Breton and the hamlet of Mabou, which has previously been celebrated as the home of the Rankin Family, the popular Celtic pop band.

"Why do they have to be from Cape Breton?" asked Chris Cochrane on Facebook.

On Twitter, Peter Anthony (@peterisfunny) said: "Read about Canadian family caught smoking on a plane and thought, 'Please don't be from N.S., please don't be from N.S.' They're from N.S."

"The family that smokes on a plane together, gets charged together," tweeted Richard Hodges. "Of course they're from Cape Breton."  

Earlier on Wednesday, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had been updated with Mabou's most recently famous family.  

"Mabou is best known for the nicotine-addicted MacNeil family that caused a flight destined to the Dominican Republic to make an emergency overweight landing in Bermuda," the site stated.

That description has since been removed from the Wikipedia page.

The incident has also resulted in an audio spoof featuring "The Smoking MacNeils," which makes reference to some of the island's other famous families including performers the Barra MacNeils and the Rankins.

Disorderly behaviour 

The MacNeils appeared in a plea court in Hamilton, Bermuda, on Monday after they were accused of smoking on the Sunwing Airlines flight. All three were charged with disobeying lawful commands under the Air Navigation (Overseas Territories) Order.

MacNeil Sr. pleaded guilty to behaving in a disorderly manner and using abusive and insulting words. Darlene MacNeil pleaded guilty to disobeying lawful commands. David MacNeil Jr. was charged with smoking on the plane, but he denied the charge in court Monday.

Prosecutors decided not to proceed further with the charges, so in the end, no one was found guilty of smoking on the plane.

The two eldest MacNeils were sentenced to either a $500 fine or 10 days in prison. Their release indicates they paid the fines. MacNeil Jr. was free to go.

The plea court in Bermuda heard the incident began when MacNeil Jr. tried to use the bathroom before Friday's flight took off. The bathroom was locked and flight attendants told him to return to his seat.

About 13 minutes after takeoff, he went back to the bathroom and was told again to return to his seat. He refused and sat in a nearby empty seat.

Court heard MacNeil Sr. went to the bathroom and was also told to return to his seat. He swore at the flight attendant and sat down next to his son. When the bathroom was unlocked, both men used it. MacNeil Sr. allegedly slammed the bathroom door and when he emerged, he swore again at a flight attendant and said he'd just urinated all over the floor.

Donna MacNeil then went to the rear of the plane and cursed at a female crew member, court heard. It was only hours later that crew members saw MacNeil Jr. leaving the plane's bathroom smelling of smoke.

Following a search of the bathroom, the crew failed to find a cigarette butt. Fearing that a burning cigarette butt might be somewhere on the plane, the crew made an emergency landing in Bermuda. After the plane landed, three of the MacNeils were arrested.

The 170 other passengers spent the night in hotels, at Sunwing's expense. Meanwhile, a mechanic was brought in to check the plane, as it landed full of fuel and was overweight.

Sunwing has said it will seek those costs, totalling about $50,000, back from the MacNeils.