Exhausted, relieved and frustrated, a group of bedraggled Manitoban tourists on a Cuban holiday touched down in Winnipeg Saturday evening, 36 hours after they’d seen a bed, a toothbrush or a decent meal.
Passengers stopped outside the international arrivals gate at Richardson International Airport to describe a charter that couldn’t get a plane to them or even explain to them what had gone wrong.
Some said they’d surfed the Internet waiting in a small Cuban airport overnight before an airline agent arrived at dawn to tell them what they’d already found out on their own: Sunwing Flight 261 from Winnipeg to Holguin had taken off, only to turn back over North Dakota, causing the plane to be 13 hours late picking up passengers in Cuba for the return trip.
The charter was part of an all-inclusive weeklong resort holiday near Holguin, a city in the eastern part of Cuba most known for being the place Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.
The passengers had booked with the charter carrier, Sunwing, which merged with Signature Vacations in 2011.
In total, the flight carried 146 passengers and crew. Most were on holiday from Brandon and small towns in western Manitoba.
They included a wedding party of 17, elderly couples, parents with young families as well as one passenger suffering through a bout of food poisoning picked up on the island and a man who had to do without medication that was checked into his luggage.
“It was a rough trip with these guys,” said Fred Copeland, the man who needed his medication. “With three kids,” he added.
The Copelands live in Cowan, a small town 440 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, and planned to stay with family in Winnipeg overnight, deciding against the long drive home.
“It’s just not right. It shouldn’t have happened to us, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” fumed a Killarney nurse the moment she cleared customs.
Carolyn Tallack said a series of delays in the return Sunwing flight from Holguin, plus a bizarre set of glitches in communications, left passengers frustrated. Saturday morning, she was on her phone to her son in Brandon, who called the Free Press.
“We’ve been awake 36 hours. What are they doing to people? Everybody understands that things happen.
“The thing is, they didn’t keep us informed. People want to know they’re treated with some dignity,” Tallack said.
Things started to go wrong as soon as the air carrier touched down in Cuba a week ago, at the beginning of the weeklong holiday. Resorts scheduled to take the tourists were overbooked, and Tallack said she spent two nights in another resort where the food was poor, her room had no toilet seat and no safe for belongings. Worse, she was convinced there were rodents scuttling in the ceiling above her.
The final straw was the flight home, she said.
“It wasn’t clear what was going on. Nothing showed up, and they didn’t call us. The biggest mishap was they (the charter) didn’t keep us informed properly,” said Ilde Rodriguez, one of the few Cubans booked on the charter flight.
The low-cost carrier, which specializes in holiday excursions to vacation spots in Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe, issued a statement just as the plane finally arrived in Winnipeg describing the mishaps that plagued the flight.
“The flight finally departed at 1:20 p.m., incurring a total delay of 12 hours and 50 minutes,” the corporate email said.
“We are very apologetic for the inconvenience this has caused our customers and will take measures to improve the timeliness of our customer communications in the future.”
Passengers were offered a $150 voucher for hotel accommodations or for future travel with the carrier.
Sunwing said in its statement passengers were given the option of a full refund, but Tallack said she wasn’t made aware of it.
The carrier also said the flight was delayed leaving Winnipeg to fly to Cuba and then encountered an undisclosed maintenance problem. That was compounded by the fact a new flight crew had to be called in, after the crew on duty ended their shift. By the time the airline caught up to the passengers, they were already en route to the airport from various resorts.
“Customers arrived at the airport, checked in, and learned of the extended delay several hours later. At this point, we were unable to arrange temporary accommodations as the nearby hotels were sold out,” the carrier said.
“Customers were offered a meal voucher and received a $150 future travel voucher. In view of the situation, we also offered families with children and some of our elderly passengers the option to access the VIP lounge, which unfortunately wasn’t large enough to accommodate all customers.”