Several Canadian airlines are helping customers get out of the path of mighty Hurricane Irma as it plows through the Caribbean on its way to Florida.

The most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history made landfall in Antigua and Barbuda Wednesday morning, with sustained maximum wind speeds hitting high of over 295 kilometres an hour. The Category 5 storm is expected to cause catastrophic damage in some areas, and has prompted the Canadian government to issue several advisories warning against travel to areas in its path.

Air Transat, Sunwing and Air Canada have sent several empty aircraft to the affected area in order to get travellers out before the storm hits.

Air Transat says 10 aircraft were sent to the Dominican Republic to load passengers Wednesday morning.

By noon, seven aircraft left Punta Cana, two left Puerto Plata and one left Samana on their way back to Canada, Air Transat said.

Air Canada says it’s cancelled a number of flights for later in the week, and is instead sending those aircraft down to pick up customers who want to change their tickets ahead of the storm. Air Canada is waiving the cost of changing flights in order to accommodate these passengers.

“We have operated some extra flights to immediately affected areas, such as Antigua and Provindenciales, to bring customers home early, and more flights for this purpose are planned,” Peter Fitzpatrick, media relations with Air Canada, said in an email Wednesday.

He added that larger aircraft are being sent to other destinations in the storm’s path, such as Cuba and Florida, “to be sure there is space for people wishing to travel.”

Air Transat says it’s also looking at sending planes to Cuba and Florida ahead of the storm.

Sunwing says it’s activated plans to bring customers home from all destinations under a hurricane watch or warning.

However, some Sunwing customers say the airline hasn’t been answering their calls.

“Their 1-800 number keeps going dead, (and) their representative here is very hard to locate,” Canadian Adrianna Prosser, in Punta Cana, told CTV News Channel Wednesday morning.

Alber Hanna, who is part of a group of 40 Canadians in Punta Cana, says Sunwing isn’t taking the threat to his location seriously.

“We tried to get home and we were told that Sunwing was not willing to provide flights for us at this point because they do not believe that this is going to hit Punta Cana,” he told CTV News Channel on Wednesday around noon.

“They said they have more experience than any other airline, and they know this weather and it never hits Punta Cana.”

Hanna said the resort where he’s staying is preparing for the storm and advising tourists to hide in bathrooms when it hits.

“We’re stranded here and we don’t know what to do,” he said.

Sunwing says two flights were sent to Punta Cana on Wednesday to retrieve passengers scheduled to fly out that day or on Thursday. Two flights were also sent to St. Maarten on Tuesday. Additionally, a flight scheduled to go to Puerto Plata on Friday was cancelled.

Sunwing says it has not cancelled flights to Cuba, the Bahamas or Florida, and that passengers scheduled to come home on those flights will be allowed to take advantage of the airline’s hurricane policy.

Canadian traveller Mahvish Mian, who is in Puerto Plata, says she booked a flight home on WestJet after facing issues with Air Canada.

“We actually had to take matters into our own hands,” she told CTV News Channel. She says she had originally been scheduled to fly out on Thursday via Air Canada, but the airline cancelled the flight without giving her any notice. “WE received absolutely no communication,” she said. “We think that’s very irresponsible on their part, and that’s why we’re frustrated.”

The airlines say they do not know, at this point, how many people are headed home on flights from the Caribbean.

Montreal resident Corinne Arfi said the situation in Cuba is becoming increasingly chaotic.

Anxious travellers are arriving at the airport without planes to board, she said. And confusing updates from resort and airline officials have patience running thin.

“We just don’t know what is what. It’s very hard to get a straight answer from anyone here,” she said. “Every time we try to ask someone for information we get a different answer.”

Arfi is waiting at a resort for the next available Sunwing flight home. She said the staff is doing their best to keep people calm, but their actions speak louder than words.

“They moved everything off the beach, closed the bars, took away all the garbage cans, took away all the chairs,” she said. “All of this is happening while they were telling us we are okay.”

Arfi said the weather is clear at the moment, and she does not want to stick around to see if that changes.

“Some people said that we might be transported to Havana. I said absolutely not. I want to leave.”

Relieved to be home

It was a much calmer scene inside an arrivals terminal at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Streams of weary, but relieved travellers poured in from destinations in the path of the massive storm.

Sara and Al Gallien flew in from Punta Cana, where they said the mood was growing increasingly tense.

“The airport in Punta Cana was crazy. Everyone was right on the edge of panic. There was a little bit of aggressive behavior like pushing and shoving, but nothing (too) crazy. It was pretty scary,” Sara told CTV Toronto on Wednesday afternoon.

Some vacationers found out their trips were cut short in the middle of the night.

“It was like two in the morning, and we go to our hotel rooms, and we see this piece of paper saying your flight is tomorrow and you have to leave,” Susan Khamassi said. “We’re all panicking, disoriented, trying to pack, (and) trying to get everything ready. (We) barely had any sleep. It was a nightmare, but I’m just happy to be home safe.”