Sunwing to sue family for allegedly smoking on flight
Published Monday, February 4, 2013 12:48PM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 4, 2013 10:12PM EST
Sunwing Vacations intends to take legal action to recoup an estimated $50,000 from the passengers whose alleged smoking aboard a flight from Halifax to the Dominican Republic forced an unscheduled stopover in Bermuda.
Sunwing flight 454 left Halifax Stanfield International Airport for Punta Cana, Dominican Republic on Friday night, but the trip was cut short after three passengers were allegedly caught smoking cigarettes and became verbally abusive with the plane's crew.
According to Sunwing Vacations spokesperson Daryl McWilliams, the passengers' behaviour when confronted by passengers and crew, "went way beyond uncooperative."
And besides their defiant attitudes, McWilliams told CTVNews.ca the three refused to say where they had stashed their spent cigarette butts.
"Not knowing where they were disposed of prevented us from checking whether they had been extinguished properly," McWilliams explained in a telephone interview Monday.
The combination of unruly behaviour and the fire hazard posed by potentially still-smouldering cigarette butts hidden somewhere on the plane made this a "very, very serious infraction," McWilliams said.
As a result, the flight was re-routed to L.F. Wade International Airport in Bermuda, where the fuel-laden jet was forced to make an overweight landing.
That meant a Sunwing mechanic had to be flown to Bermuda to conduct a structural inspection of the plane, McWilliams said, in addition to a separate search of the passenger cabin to find the discarded butts.
By the time those searches could be conducted, McWilliams said the plane's crew had exceeded their allowable duty time, necessitating an overnight layover.
As a result the airline had to pay for the plane's nearly-200 passengers and crew to spend the night in Bermuda Friday, as well as put up the passengers stranded in Punta Cana by the delay.
McWilliams said the airline intends to pursue legal action against the family -- identified as David MacNeil, Sr., 54, his wife Donna, 52, and their 22-year-old son David, Jr., of Cape Breton -- to recover the expenses incurred by the unscheduled stopover, which are so far estimated at nearly $50,000.
"We're going to use whatever tools we have available to us to try to recover our costs," he said, acknowledging that pursuing legal action against the three could be a long process. "But just as importantly, we intend to make sure that an example is made of these people."
Meanwhile, Bermuda Police Service spokesperson Robin Simmons said police were at the airport to meet and arrest the three after the plane touched down around 10 p.m. local time Friday. A fourth passenger travelling with them, a 16-year-old boy, was not arrested.
CTV Atlantic reported that the three made a brief appearance in court Monday morning.
Local reporter Owain Johnston-Barnes, of Bermuda’s The Royal Gazette newspaper, told the station that David Sr. pleaded guilty to behaving in a disorderly manner by using abusive and insulting words.
All three were charged with disobeying lawful commands by a flight attendant, to which Donna was the only one to plead guilty.
Both are facing fines of $500 related to their guilty pleas, which the senior magistrate ordered them to pay immediately or risk spending 10 days in jail.
David Jr. denied a charge of smoking in the bathroom, while he and his father both denied the disobeying lawful commands charges.
The prosecution didn’t offer evidence on the charges that the defendants denied, and the smoking charge against David Jr. was dropped.
Johnston-Barnes said the family appeared embarrassed during their court appearance, and kept their heads low.
“They were very quiet during the proceedings,” Johnston-Barnes said in a telephone interview. “They did not speak at all, preferring to let their lawyer…speak on their behalf.”
Their lawyer, Victoria Pearman, said the family was tense on the flight because of its delayed departure, and David Jr. had to use the restroom “urgently.”
Court heard that crew members argued with the McNeils over the use of the washroom while the seatbelt sign was on before they became concerned about possible smoking on board the plane.
"It just seems that this could have all been done another way," she said. "Even though all offences before this court are serious, given the human element of this, the court may consider that this is a one off and unlikely to happen again."
In the meantime, McWilliams said, none of the four passengers linked to the incident that caused the diversion are welcome back on Sunwing.
"We're not going to assist them in any way," McWilliams said. "I hope they get the book throw at them."
Domestic flights in Canada have been smoke-free since 1989, the year before the federal government extended the smoking ban to international flights of six hours or less.
Spurred by the demands of airline employees unhappy about working in a confined, smoke-filled setting, by the mid-1990s Canada was the first country to require its airlines make all domestic and international flights smoke-free.
Now, smokers flying with any commercial airline have to finish their cigarettes long before boarding, often before they even step foot inside the airport.
With files from CTV Atlantic’s Jacqueline Foster and The Canadian Press
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