Transport Canada isn’t the only one investigating the now-notorious Sunwing “party plane” that is now making headlines around the world.
The Government of Quebec is also getting involved and one area of focus is on the organizer of the controversial trip, James William Awad, after Quebec’s Office of Consumer Protection confirmed that 28-year-old Awad, in fact, does not hold a travel agent license.
As PAX’s Quebec bureau, PAX Nouvelles, reported last week, the agency has noted that under Article 4 states that "no person shall transact business as a travel agent, hold the title of travel agent or give reason to believe that he or she is a travel agent" without a license.
Section two of Quebec's Loi sur les agents de voyages defines a travel agent as "any person, corporation or association who, on behalf of others or its members" arranges or offers travel, travel reservations or lodging reservations.
The OPC states that anyone found guilty of violating section four of the law could be fined between $600 and $15,000.
It is not clear if whether Awad, founder of the members-only 111 Private Club, ever offered or claimed to offer travel agent services, but in a Jan. 6 statement, he said he had "chartered a private aircraft and private transportation" for a group of influencers and reality television stars.
"A slap in the face"
That Dec. 30 flight from Montreal to Cancun is currently at the centre of a federal investigation after videos shared on social media revealed passengers not wearing masks as they used vapes and showed off an opened bottle of Grey Goose vodka, while singing, dancing and taking selfies in the aisle and on seats.
Le Journal de Montreal reported that there were more than 100 passengers on board and that the aircraft had been chartered by Awad, who sold the group on a six-night trip that included a visit to Tulum to celebrate New Year's Day.
According to reports, some of the passengers were cast members from Quebec-based reality television shows, including the Quebec adaptation of the British dating series, Love Island.
The story, since going public last week, has sparked public outrage, including anger on PAX’s own Facebook page, where more than 100 comments were left by readers – the majority of which condemned the group’s behaviour.
The incident has also earned reprimands from federal officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, last week, told reporters that he was "extremely frustrated" by the group’s actions.
“…it's a slap in the face to see people putting themselves, putting their fellow citizens, putting airline workers at risk by being completely irresponsible,” said Trudeau, who then, in French, referred to the passengers as "idiots" and "barbarians.”
Stranded in destination
Some of the passengers found themselves stranded in Mexico last week after several airlines announced that they would not fly the group home.
Sunwing, for one, cancelled the return flight due to the “group’s refusal to accept all terms for the private charter to return to Montreal” – a claim that Awad is disputing, alleging that the sticking point was the fact that Sunwing would not provide his group with a meal.
“I agreed to every demand, including multiple In-Flight Guardians, I assured them every measure would be followed, but we couldn’t conclude an agreement because Sunwing refused to Provide Meals to the group for a 5h flight,” Awad wrote in a statement posted to Twitter last week.
Meanwhile, other airlines, such as Air Transat and Air Canada, pledged not to allow the Sunwing passengers to board their planes.
“As stated, to the extent that we can identify the passengers who were part of the group, we are denying boarding to ensure the safety of other passengers and our crews,” Air Canada’s media relations team wrote in a statement shared with media on Jan. 6.
“15 people were denied boarding yesterday and four others this morning for this reason.”
Several participants on the trip also reportedly caught COVID-19 while in Mexico, only adding to their troubles.
According to Rebecca St-Pierre, a 19-year-old student from Trois-Rivières, Que who participated in the trip, some 30 others tested positive for the virus and were forced to extend their stay and find last-minute arrangements, the Canadian Press reported.
On Friday (Jan. 7), Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos confirmed that 27 of around 130 passengers on the Dec. 30 flight were able to return to Canada on four different flights on Wednesday (Jan. 5).
Speaking to reporters, Duclos said the passengers were all “stopped and interrogated at the air border.”
Possible fines + job firings
The passengers involved could face fines of up to $5,000 for each offence on board, Transport Canada said in a statement last week. There could be steeper fines or even face jail time if anyone was found to be endangering others, or if they provided falsified information upon returning to Canada.
Real-life consequences with employers have already caught up with some individuals who were involved in the incident.
According to CTV News, one passenger, Frédérique Dumas-Joyal, was fired from her job of several years at Quebec's financial markets authority, the AMF.
CTV also confirmed that another passenger, real estate agent Karl Bernard, was suspended "with no possibility to be reinstated.”
Meanwhile, questions remain around why Sunwing did not turn the plane around, back to Canada, once the passengers on board became unruly.
Several aviation experts that spoke to the Canadian Press last week suggested that the trip could have been aborted mid-flight.
Some flight attendants are speaking out as well, noting how the Sunwing "party plane" illustrates some of the issues the sector is dealing with amid the Omicron health crisis.
In an interview with CBC, Wesley Lesosky, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) airline division, which represents around 15,000 employees, said Ottawa should speed up access to booster shots for flight crews and that airlines should scale back service in the aisles to limit flight attendants' exposure to the virus.
There is also a push from the local union representing some 1,000 flight attendants for Sunwing to offer mandatory rapid tests to cabin crews.
Sunwing says its security department probed the Dec. 30 charter flight and the company reported it to Transport Canada. "The health and safety of our employees and passengers is our top priority at Sunwing Airlines," the company said in statement to CBC.
Now, the organizer of the trip, who potentially faces a mountain of legal problems, is pushing back, taking to his Twitter on Sunday to say that the "partying was allowed" on board the flight.
“Reality of the story, sheeps [sic] are mad because people partied on a private chartered plane where partying was allowed. Wake up!!” Awad posted on Jan. 9.
The remark followed a Thursday Blogspot statement in which Awad said he “understand[s] why many fellow citizens are upset about the current situation” and that he learned from the experience.