WestJet says it cancelled a flight from Calgary to Toronto on Monday night after a family refused to obey a rule that all passengers over the age of two must wear masks.
But passenger Safwan Choudhry says staff were trying to force his 19-month-old daughter, who falls below the age requirement for that regulation, to wear a mask.
A WestJet spokesperson confirmed that Flight 652 was cancelled, and said flight crew have access to a guest manifest which specifically states which guests are under two, as they are booked as infants.
Choudhry said his family complied with regulations, and his daughter was identified as an infant on her boarding pass.
“The entire situation was horribly executed management on WestJet’s part,” he said. “Just a simple apology, which is the Canadian thing to do … would have been acceptable. But yet they have sent out a statement saying the child wasn’t an infant, which says it right on the boarding pass the child is an infant.”
WestJet has a zero-tolerance mask adherence policy, the company said, to comply with Transport Canada’s regulation that it’s mandatory for all travellers ages two and over to wear protective face coverings while on flights.
“Those guests travelling on employee travel privileges, including buddy passes, are held to a higher standard of behaviour on WestJet aircraft and we are disappointed that this issue ended ultimately in a flight cancellation for all guests on board,” WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart said in an emailed statement. “We apologize to our affected guests for this inconvenience and we have reaccomodated the majority of them on flights departing today.”
Stewart said that parents and guardians are informed of the mask requirement and that staff try to “seek an understanding of any situation that may exist.”
“If parents/guardians are non-compliant or unwilling to comply with our requirement, then we will enforce our policy,” she said.
Choudhry was flying with his wife, and two daughters,19-month-old Zara and three-year-old Zupda. He, his wife, and oldest daughter were wearing masks.
He said there were no issues during check-in, but after being seated and just before the plane took off, multiple WestJet crew members approached his wife and said both children needed to be wearing a mask.
“We were surprised to learn our 19-month-old daughter needed to be wearing a mask,” he said, adding that he didn’t realize until later that the child wasn’t required to wear a mask under Transport Canada rules.
He said he and his wife tried to force a mask onto their youngest daughter’s face, to no avail.
“Of course, being desperate to get home, we — despite there not being such a policy — opted to comply until she was crying hysterically, with the crew watching over us, until she threw up, at which point they told us you all need to get off the plane.”
Choudhry said after the child vomited, a flight attendant told him police would be called and threatened his wife with arrest.
A few minutes later, police arrived and said the child would need to wear a mask or the family would be removed from the plane. Choudhry said at this point, other passengers stood up to voice their anger at the situation.
Choudhry shared a video with CBC News that shows masked police officers speaking to passengers on the plane, and frustrated passengers can be heard shouting as a child cries.
“Within a few minutes, the captain of the flight said ‘for security and safety reasons, we’re evacuating everyone from the flight,” he said. “We felt awful that now this entire plane is being evacuated.”
Choudhry said after the plane was evacuated, officers asked for each family member’s ID — which is when police realized that the child was under two, and the family were following regulations.
In another video provided by Choudhry, a police officer tells him that police have spoken with the crew and resolved the mask issue, but that the behaviour of the rest of the passengers left the crew feeling unsafe to fly.
‘I was shocked,’ says witness
Another passenger, Marian Nur, witnessed the entire interaction.
She said at no point did Choudhry or his wife raise their voices while interacting with flight attendants, and that she saw the family doing their best to comply with instructions.
“I was so shocked, the parents never raised their voices, they never got angry with the attendants, they were just trying to reason with them,” she said, adding that she felt the airline’s response “was just very unnecessary.”
Nur said she felt the family was potentially being mistreated because of their race, so she started recording the incident on her phone. She said a flight attendant first asked her to stop recording, then asked police to make Nur stop recording when she refused — police told the flight attendant it was not their responsibility to stop Nur from filming.
“This was about a toddler not wearing a mask, and you felt the need to deboard the entire plane? There was a woman on the plane trying to get home to her mother on her deathbed. It was just frustrating, very, very upsetting,” Nur said.
Choudhry said since the flight was cancelled, WestJet has not reached out to him or his family at all.
WestJet said due to privacy concerns, it currently can’t share any more information about the incident.