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Saskatoon passengers landing in Orlando told they ‘entered the country illegally’

By Carla Shynkaruk

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    SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN (CTV Network) — A Saskatoon-area couple travelling to Orlando last Friday is left with many unanswered questions after an unexpected delay because of a security breach by an airport employee.

Rhonda Denis from Vonda, Sask. is adding her story to the many over the past few years about airlines causing grief for passengers.

She says the flight to Orlando was one of her first since the pandemic.

“We get off the plane and we’re guided by a West Jet employee who opened the wrong door and instead of going through customs we went to our luggage,” Denis told CTV News.

The plane full of travellers arriving from Saskatoon stood in front of the empty luggage carousel for an hour, according to Denis.

“You had people with babies and little kids, a lot of little kids and they’re stuck waiting. We’re all just depressed and sad and angry,” she says.

Then, an airport employee approached.

“Finally, I think it was a West Jet employee who said there’s been a security breach, you have all entered the country illegally. They said you will all have to go back now,” she said.

They were taken to customs on a shuttle bus, the same way they arrived at the baggage area. Shuttles are common at large airports to get passengers from one terminal to another. It was midnight by the time they were finished with the ordeal which was three hours after landing.

On top of it all, Denis’ rental car wasn’t available any longer because it was so late. She had to take a taxi to her hotel and then back the next day to get the car. That cost her about $100 USD. That is something passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says, should be reimbursed.

“It is a question for the airline to pay for the expenses if it was the airlines mistake for offloading them in the wrong place,” said Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights.

In an email to CTV News, West Jet spokesperson Julia Kaiser said they accept fault for the delay.

“West Jet is taking responsibility for the error and is currently in communication with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure this type of mistake is avoided in the future. Situations like these are extremely rare.”

Kaiser apologized to the guests that were delayed due to the error and appreciated their patience and cooperation with US Customs and Border Protection on the day of the incident. She says guests that were delayed may be eligible for compensation and are encouraged to visit their website to submit a claim.

Lukacs worries that getting compensation may not be easy because staff receiving the complaints won’t know the full story.

“They are just trained to deal with specific cases, and this is something non-standard. And should be passing it on to a supervisor and higher up to look at it,” he said.

Another concern in this case, according to Lukacs, is about those who didn’t have checked bags and didn’t wait at the luggage area to hear the announcement. If anyone went on to another country, that’s another issue.

“They could say, you didn’t go through customs and immigration, you’re an illegal immigrant or something. There has to be some way to communicate with U.S. authorities that it’s not the passenger’s fault and the passengers are innocent,” he said.

He says airlines need to be held accountable for mistakes even if the monetary amount isn’t a lot. Going to Small Claims Court shouldn’t be ruled out if compensation isn’t given.

“We are fully cooperating with the CBP and relevant authorities to conclude the investigation and are reviewing measures to implement appropriately to prevent a reoccurrence,” said Madison Kruger, a media relations strategist with West Jet.

Meanwhile, Denis is still in Florida. She wants to get reimbursed for the taxi fare but is trying not to think of the ordeal so she can enjoy the rest of her vacation.

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