Oakville woman says Sunwing evacuation flight from Cuba was nearly empty

As the cleanup from Hurricane Irma continues across Florida and the Caribbean, one Canadian passenger is sharing her story with CBC News about disorganized evacuation plans from a Canadian air carrier, and a nearly empty plane as the storm approached.

Airline blames uncertain path of Hurricane Irma for ever-changing evacuation plans

Julie Shannon's evacuation flight from Varadero, Cuba, before Hurricane Irma hit was nearly empty. (Julie Shannon)

As the cleanup from Hurricane Irma continues across Florida and the Caribbean, one Canadian passenger is sharing her story with CBC News about disorganized evacuation plans from Canadian air carrier Sunwing, and a nearly empty plane as the storm approached.

Julie Shannon arrived in Varadero, Cuba, on Monday, Sept. 4, to sunny blue skies. She has been vacationing in the area for years, and often takes goods to donate to locals.

When she arrived, she didn't think the island would take a direct hit from the hurricane. But she soon realized that her vacation had to be cut short.

While Air Canada and Air Transat passengers were being flown home, Shannon said, Sunwing customers were left waiting for days, wondering about the evacuation plan.

She felt fortunate when a local Sunwing representative told her and another customer that they could have the last seats on a flight home that Friday, Sept. 10. They left many other passengers behind when they hopped in a cab that morning. So she was shocked when they got on the plane and found that it was far from full.

"When we got on the plane finally, when we boarded and we saw 33 seats filled and the rest empty, we all went, 'What? This can't be,'" Shannon told CBC Toronto.

She said "hundreds" of people were left at the beach and wouldn't be able to get out.

'We weren't well-informed'

"We were heartbroken. It was just too much to take. I looked across at a young man who had taken his mom down to Varadero for just a holiday and his head was down on his seat and I looked over at him and said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'I'm just sick.'"

The man started listing all the people he'd left behind at his hotel.

She blamed the empty seats on a "lack of organization" by Sunwing, including a lack of communication.

"We weren't well-informed," Shannon said. She felt the airline could have started flying people out on the Monday or Tuesday.

Julie Shannon says she will wait to see how Sunwing handles the fallout from its evacuation plans ahead of Hurricane Irma before deciding whether to fly with the airline again. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

She always flies Sunwing to the islands and said she has been pleased by the service. "But this was a huge error in judgment," she said.

Airline 'extremely empathetic'

For its part, Sunwing said Friday that the hurricane's path was unpredictable and airline representatives developed evacuation plans as its path evolved, plans that were affected by sudden airport closures.

On the day Shannon left Cuba, the company sent eight aircraft down. Regarding Shannon's plane and its empty seats, spokesperson Jacqueline Grossman said:

"A hundred customers who had already been transferred from Cayo Coco were intended to be on one of these flights, but were able to be accommodated on an earlier flight. This particular aircraft had to depart urgently and therefore it was regrettably not full."

Grossman said Sunwing staff ensured remaining customers were "accommodated in the safest possible places while the storm passed."

According to Grossman, 36 special rescue flights had been sent down to areas affected by Irma since Sept. 5.

"We are extremely empathetic of what our customers experienced throughout the hurricane evacuation operation and will be issuing compensation to those affected, including a refund for the unused portion of their vacation," Grossman said.

Shannon said that in addition to compensation for customers, she would like to see the airline offer something to Sunwing representatives on the ground in Cuba, who worked tirelessly to keep customers calm and informed.

In a followup email, another Sunwing spokesperson said the company is "extremely proud" of the local staff and "will ensure this appreciation is recognized appropriately.

"We thank our customers for their empathy and concern."

Meanwhile, Shannon said she is going to "watch how they handle this" before deciding whether to fly with the airline again.

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie