Hundreds of Sask. residents finally make their way home after being stranded in Cuba almost a week

Hundreds of Saskatchewan residents stranded in Cuba have finally found their way back home after Sunwing cancellations disrupted their plans.

As thoughts of a class-action lawsuit against Sunwing brew, expert says government has role to play

Sign at sunwing kiosk at Regina airport showing lists of flights cancelled.

Elizabeth Bentley says dragging bags to the reception every morning, only to bring back them up to the hotel rooms at night, was a routine for almost a week for her and other passengers stranded in Cuba.

"It was abandonment. I had put up a Christmas tree before leaving, put presents there and told my kids to come on the eve, but we weren't there. And then the new year didn't happen either," she said.

Bentley said it was a mistake for her family to think they could trust Sunwing with their flights.

Hundreds of Saskatchewan residents stuck in Cuba due to Sunwing cancellations finally arrived in Winnipeg on Sunday night. Upon arrival, contrary to what they had been told earlier, Sunwing informed them that only eight tickets were reserved for a WestJet flight to Regina on Monday afternoon. More than a dozen immediately hit the road on Sunday night, with several more following Monday morning.

"Then, out of nowhere, to our surprise Sunwing said they will offer us a flight to Regina on Monday afternoon," Theresa Joan Ayerst, who was travelling with her husband, son and mother-in-law, said.

She said the flight back to Regina only had 28 passengers on it, all people who had been stranded in Cuba.

Ayerst said the trip took a toll on her family.

"My 13-year-old son suffers from severe anxiety and every day he was crying asking are we ever getting back home," she said with tears in her eyes.

"We were really excited to be going away for Christmas, but are coming back feeling way more emotional and stressed."

Ayerst said the only good thing out of their ordeal was some friendships made during the shared crisis. She said a Facebook group is growing, with talk circulating about a class-action suit against Sunwing.

Two women stand with a Christmas tree in the background.

Last week, Sunwing announced it was cancelling all its flights out of Saskatoon and Regina until Feb. 3.

CBC reached out to Sunwing for an interview for this story, but the airline declined.

Ayerst, who lives in Regina, said she would never fly with Sunwing again.

Other Sunwing customers CBC spoke with at Regina Airport on Monday afternoon shared that sentiment.

"Nightmare" was the only word Bryan Marciszyn could think of to describe his experience with Sunwing. He was supposed to be back home in Manitou Beach, Sask., from Cuba on Dec. 27.

"I was waiting in the lobby of my hotel for five days for a bus that never showed up," he said.

During that time, he fell and banged his head, and had to get medical treatment.

Others missed out on work opportunities and said it felt "like abuse" to deal with Sunwing customer care, which they say was always lacking information.

A woman in a grey tee and blue sweatshirt.

"I'm usually a strong person and nothing gets me, but I had a couple of breakdowns," Valerie Lechner, one of the people who drove from Winnipeg to Regina, said.

She said she chose to drive because after previous "false promises of a plane coming," she did not want to to trust Sunwing again.

"Being back in Canada was like a weight was lifted off. There were people with babies who ran out of formula and diapers. In this day of technology, how can Sunwing have so much miscommunication?"

King Chen, who was traveling with 10 people including three young kids, agreed.

"It was very frustrating. Both arriving and departing flights were delayed. We kept checking but there were no alerts or information," she said.

In an email statement shared with CBC, the provincial government said it is aware that several hundred passengers returned to Saskatchewan, with more expected in the coming days.

"Sunwing is still unable to tell us with certainty when all Saskatchewan residents will be repatriated," the statement said.

"We expect Sunwing to treat customers fairly and we expect that federal [Transport] Minister [Omar] Alghabra and the CTA will be holding carriers accountable as that is their regulatory responsibility."

A woman in far right sits with her two sons and a daughter at a table. There are wine glasses to be seen.

Manitoba resident Debra Geiler, who said she had to pay more than $4,000 out of her own pocket to make her way from Cuba to Toronto to Regina before finally arriving home in Brandon, said it might not be smooth sailing seeking compensation from Sunwing.

"I hope they compensate us for that," she said. "On the news, when we were stranded there, we saw ministers say it's shocking and disappointing, but they didn't do anything."

She and others said they want the federal government to look into Sunwing's disrupted service.

'Airlines are not typically held accountable': advocate

Gábor Lukács, founder and co-ordinator of Air Passenger Rights, told CBC's Saskatoon Morning that all passengers are entitled to alternate transportation to their original destinations.

He said that can include buying tickets on other airlines, competitors included, under the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty covering airline liability enforced in Canada.

"A deal is a deal. Sunwing airlines cannot just unilaterally walk away from the contract which is already concluded and paid by the passengers," he said.

"With all these cancellations that are fully within Sunwing's control, they have to pay passengers lost wages, meals, accommodations and so on."

Lukács said passengers should send Sunwing a letter of demand stating the incurred expenses, with copies of receipts.

"If Sunwing, as expected, doesn't pay, passengers can serve Sunwing with small claims court papers. Sunwing will have to come to Saskatchewan and defend in court why it's not paying passengers," he said.

"These situations keep happening over and over again because airlines are not typically held accountable, neither by the government nor the public."

A man in a suit speaks to the camera.

Lukács said he doubts Sunwing will live up to its obligation of paying passengers a lump sum of $500 within 30 days, as is required under the Accessible Transportation Planning and Reporting Regulations.

"The Canadian Transportation Agency could fine up to $25,000 per passenger and per incident for many of these violations, but I fear it may not be happening anytime soon," he said.

Lukács said he would not be surprised to see a class-action lawsuit against the airline and suggested passengers keep records of their conversations with Sunwing representatives.

"Whatever time it takes, do it. Don't let Sunwing keep your money."


Pratyush Dayal


Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at

With files from the Saskatoon Morning and Samantha Samson

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