WestJet is denying claims that it tried to force a 19-month-old girl to wear a face mask in an on-board dispute that resulted in an entire flight being cancelled.
It all started late Tuesday evening (Sept. 8th) when passenger Safwan Choudhry and his wife and two daughters – 19-month-old Zara and three-year-old Zupda – boarded a red eye flight, WestJet flight 652, from Calgary to Toronto.
According to CBC News, everything seemed to be going just fine in the beginning.
The Toronto-based family breezed through security, but after being seated just before take-off, Choudhry and his wife became embroiled in a dispute involving multiple crew members over an issue regarding Canada's mask-wearing rules.
Choudhry, who was flying on employee guest passes, told CBC that WestJet specifically requested that his 19-month-old daughter mask up, claiming that crew (in his words) said that “every person on the plane has to wear a mask or the plane can't take off.”
(For the record, Transport Canada rules that mandatory face coverings only apply to travellers over the age of two).
Choudhry said he and his wife tried to put a mask on their youngest (Choudhry said he didn’t know the exact rules until after the fact), but struggled to do so because their 19-month-old daughter was “crying hysterically,” as Choudhry told CBC.
Choudhry said his older, three-year-old daughter was, meanwhile, wearing a mask and “calmly watching cartoons.”
It escalated quickly
The situation was messy. Some crew got involved, some passengers became cranky. At some point Choudhry’s 19-month-old threw up.
Eventually, the Calgary police were called, everyone had to disembark, and the flight was cancelled, resulting in a splattering of he-said-she-said headlines the very next day.
No criminal charges were filed. However, at the centre of this sticky tale, which has since gone viral, is this: did WestJet really demand that a 19-month-old infant wear a mask?
In a separate story published by the BBC (yes, it’s gone global now), Choudhry said WestJet told them that because his youngest daughter was not wearing a mask, and was too upset to wear a mask, the whole family would have to leave.
In that same story, Choudhry said he and his wife were respectful throughout the ordeal and agreed to disembark the plane.
"My wife was threatening to be arrested & forcibly removed unless my daughters, 3 yrs & 19 months would wear a mask. While my 3yrs wore her mask, the 19 months old was hysterical," Choudhry later wrote on his Twitter.
Two sides to the story
WestJet, meanwhile, has a slightly different version of events.
In a statement posted to its blog on Friday (Sept. 11th), the airline confirmed that its staff did indeed approach a family travelling with two children (one under the age of two and one over two) on Flight 652.
But WestJet says it requested that the child over the age of two wear a mask “as required by regulation,” not Choudhry’s 19-month-old.
“After multiple requests from our crew, the parents remained non-compliant and the family was asked to voluntarily deplane,” the statement reads. “At no time was a request made by our crew to mask a child under the age of two.”
It should be noted that WestJet crew have access to a manifest that states which passengers are under age two as they are booked as infants.
WestJet is also aiming to clarify some details in the case as “the reports and videos circulating online do not represent an accurate depiction of what took place nor of the timeline of events," the company wrote.
Additionally, asking the family to deplane is what WestJet calls “a normal course of action so that the other guests on the aircraft can continue on their way while we work through the situation.”
“As examples, this process can happen whether a guest refused to stop talking on a cell phone, refused to store their laptop or refused to wear their seatbelt,” the airline explained.
Once that decision is made, it is non-reversible, “regardless if a guest decides to suddenly show compliance,” the airline wrote.
Why were the Calgary police called?
“As per our normal process, when a guest refuses to deplane voluntarily, our crew will request the presence of authorities to assist,” wrote WestJet.
In a video Choudhry provided to CBC, a police officer tells him that police resolved the mask issue with the crew and said that it was the behaviour of the passengers on board that led to staff feeling unsafe.
WestJet says the red eye flight was scheduled to depart at 12:05 a.m. and after taking a 30-minute delay, other guests on board became upset with the situation and “our crew was no longer comfortable” operating the flight.
“At the late hour, we were unable to find a replacement crew to operate this flight which led to the subsequent cancellation of flight 652,” the airline wrote. “We fully support our operating crew and this decision.”
A “zero-tolerance policy”
The incident unfolded one week after WestJet introduced stiffer penalties for passengers who refuse to wear proper face coverings on flights.
As part of a “zero-tolerance policy,” the new measures include booting non-complying passengers off flights (if they don’t heed warnings) to even banning offenders from WestJet Group flights for up to 12 months.
“We recognize that this was a very unfortunate situation,” WestJet wrote, referring to the incident. “We have a responsibility to enforce regulations and the public has a responsibility to adhere to them. We have implemented a myriad of safety and hygiene measures to ensure the safety of our travellers and employees during this pandemic. Our frontline crews are taking extra precautions and following strict protocols and processes to ensure the safety of our guests including adhering to temperature checks before work, wearing masks during all required times, washing their hands regularly. We believe that the travelling public too has a large role to play in our safety commitment by adhering to the regulations that we must follow.”
WestJet recognized that it can be “challenging” for young children to keep their masks on.
“This is why our cabin crew and airports teams are trained and knowledgeable on regulations and work with our guests to find solutions to ensure the safety of all,” WestJet wrote. “All of our new policies go through a period of review during the implementation stage to assess their pragmatism and to ensure we maintain the safety of our own people as well as our guests. We are in constant contact with Transport Canada to provide input and receive information on the regulations as they are updated.”
As of Thursday, Choudhry and his family were still in Calgary, still trying to find a flight back to Toronto.
Speaking to CBC on Wednesday, he said he was “disappointed” with how WestJet handled the situation and wanted an apology.
In the meantime, WestJet confirms that the travel privileges of those involved have been suspended until the investigation is complete.
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