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Intense Experiences and Expenses for Canadians on Repatriation Flights

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Passengers board Air Canada’s repatriation flight from a military base in Lima on March 26. More than 2,500 Canadians flew back to Toronto on seven government-organized flights from Peru during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi was among 2,500 Canadian travellers in Peru when that country went into a national lockdown as it fought to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease. This is his latest report on Canada’s repatriation efforts.

Like many Canadians stranded in locations abroad during the pandemic, Puja Shah felt desperate to escape her circumstances. Shah was travelling in Peru when that country entered a sudden lockdown on March 16. Airports were closed, highway driving required special permits, and tourist attractions were shuttered, including Machu Picchu, where Shah was about to visit.

The business analyst from Toronto had just arrived at the bus station in the town of Machu Picchu, excited to join thousands of other passengers on a drive up to the 2,430-metre (7,972-foot) summit. Instead, she learned access to the famous ruined city of the Inca kingdom had been closed hours earlier. Staggered from disappointment, Shah and her husband, Jinesh Sheth, took several minutes before deciding what to do. They chose to turn around, boarding a train for a two-hour ride back to their starting point, Cusco, the gateway city to Machu Picchu, and headed directly to the airport.

After a more than six-hour wait, they managed to get tickets on the last plane out of Cusco. It took them to Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, where they attempted near midnight to find a connection to the United States because no flights to Canada remained on the schedule. All departing flights were fully booked, however, and Shah and Sheth found themselves stranded in a nation in lockdown, with movements restricted and no supporting contacts except the Canada Embassy to Peru and Bolivia.

“The disbelief of not seeing Machu Picchu, of being right there and not being able to go up, was surpassed by all the chaos we saw that day. We just went by instinct, made our decisions that way. We held onto our hopes and whatever our guts told us to do,” Shah said of the adventure.

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Torontonians Puja Shah and Jinesh Sheth travelled to Cusco to tour Incan history but were forced to end their vacation early when Peru went into a state of emergency on March 16. (Photo supplied by Puja Shah)

In the following days, she and Sheth were among approximately 2,500 Canadians in Peru who contacted Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian embassy in Lima in search of a way out of the South American country. Anxiety-filled posts crowded a Facebook group page devoted to “Canadians Stuck in Peru Because of COVID-19”. Many didn’t know what to expect from Peru, a country with a history of corrupt governments, even though the current administration is widely commended. Faced with the novel coronavirus, President Martin Vizcarra announced the 15-day state of emergency with only 71 confirmed cases in the country. The lockdown, enforced by military and police officers, has become more restrictive and been extended to May. Vizcarra’s decisive actions will likely go down as heroic in a time when global leaders of wealthier countries played wait-and-see with COVID-19.

Yet, Peru’s rapid approach to combating the spread of the disease left tens of thousands of foreigners stranded without an immediate way out. The Canadians were instructed by the embassy to fill out multiple forms in order to be added to a list of expected passengers and then awaited word on flight details.

On March 20, the Canadian government announced it was coordinating a series of repatriation flights from Lima. Soon, the Facebook group learned the flights would cost $1,409 each and all go to Toronto. Several Canadians, most travelling as a family, couldn’t afford the cost and declared in the Facebook group their intention to stay in Peru until commercial flights opened up again — which may not be until June.

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The staff of the Canadian embassy in Peru assisted passengers in getting them back home on hastily organized repatriation flights from Lima to Toronto. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Shah said she was fortunate to able to get onto the first flight out of the Peruvian capital on March 23. Financially, she and Sheth could afford the tickets despite accumulating about $5,000 in other unexpected costs during the state of emergency.

I just didn’t know when this would end,” Shah said of the lockdown in Peru that prevented flights from departing, “and let’s say if it ended on the 31st of March, as it was scheduled to originally, what if by then there were no commercial flights allowed back into Canada? Not knowing when we could get back caused a lot of anxious thoughts and we thought the best thing to do was to get on one of the emergency flights if we could. But I could imagine somebody having three kids, for example, and living in Calgary or Vancouver, and needing to pay for all of those connecting tickets too. It would be unimaginable, it would be a cost of $10,000-plus. How many people could afford that?”

Some couldn’t. And even those who could were dismayed by the cost. Air Canada’s Pascale Dery explained the lack of business-class airfares, which typically contribute to more than 50 per cent of the revenue on any given flight, was a key reason for the the price. Another was the lack of passengers on in-bound flights to Peru. Four of the seven planes used for the repatriation flights to nation carried citizens of Peru and Ecuador from Toronto to Lima. The governments of Peru and Ecuador partnered to pay the airfare for those 249 passengers.

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Peru’s beautiful capital Lima sits on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Because of COVID-19, it may be some time before tourists congregate again on the boardwalk in the Miraflores district. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Our special flights operated for the government are less economic for us because most countries are restricting inbound air travel,” Dery, the airline’s director of media relations for Quebec and Eastern Canada, wrote in an email. “This means our aircraft on the special flights must fly without customers to the pick-up point, so we do not generate revenue to cover the costs of the outbound flight (such as fuel, crew wages) like we would on a normal flight carrying passengers both ways.”

Air Canada had to deal with other complications, such as navigating through delicate diplomatic conditions in places like Peru and Morocco that were under state-of-emergency declarations. The repatriation flights from Peru had to depart from a military airbase because Lima’s international airport had been closed. Those conditions all factored into the decision-making and costs.

Sunwing Impresses with Free Flights

But during the same time, Ontario-based Sunwing Airlines was in the process of flying home 60,000 Canadians from multiple destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America — for free. Many of the Canadian travellers wondered how one airline could manage to pull off such a feat while the nation’s largest and wealthiest carrier was charging more than twice what some passengers had paid for their economy-class ticket to Peru.

Jacqueline Grossman of Sunwing’s media relations team said the decision to provide free flights to bring home passengers — even if they weren’t customers of the airline — “was the Canadian thing to do. In difficult times, we need to stick together and do what we can to help one another.”

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Sunwing spent more than $26 million on the free flights it operated to bring Canadians back home during the coronavirus crisis. (Photo courtesy of Sunwing Airlines)

Grossman credited Sunwing’s connections with foreign governments and vacation properties in helping to facilitate the flights.

“Our repatriation flights were based on our existing schedule and involved a lot of teamwork with various partners. The vertically integrated model of our company was a big advantage during this difficult time, allowing us to be with our customers every step of the way and helped us bring many people home safely. We had to make sure we could communicate with customers, ground handlers, and airport employees all at the same time. Since we operate transfer bus services in all our destinations and have destination representatives stationed at resorts, we were able to keep customers well informed about what’s going on and what our plans were,” Grossman said, answering interview questions by email.

On April 4, WestJet began flying repatriation flights in collaboration with the Canadian government, bringing passengers home from Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, and Panama City. The cost for the Panama City-to-Toronto flight was $775.72 per ticket.

Consumer Advocate Scrutinizes Airfares

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Barbara Harvey said the federal government “is working with airlines to ensure Canadians pay reasonable costs for return tickets” and that the government “has provided financial assistance to ensure airlines do not operate these flights at a financial loss in the event that there are empty seats,” noting there have been “very limited cases” of flights not operating at full capacity.

For consumers, the government started a loan program for Canadians stranded abroad and in need of money to pay for a flight, but the application criteria included many disqualifying conditions. The idea of airlines receiving an offer of financial aid while passengers didn’t is shocking to Gabor Lukacs, a consumer advocate who is the president and founder of Airline Passenger Rights. He says passengers — particularly those who had a previously booked return flights with Air Canada — may have legal cases against the airline based on the Airline Passenger Protection Regulations

Air Canada is offering passengers whose scheduled flights were cancelled a credit toward future travel and not a cash refund, citing the government control of the flight coordination and passenger list as the reason. Lukacs contends the airline is obligated to offer a cash refund.

“Desperate passengers may have been price gouged, yes, but it does not mean they all have equally strong legal cases,” Lukacs said. “The passengers who are most likely to recoup a payment from Air Canada are those who already had purchased a return airfare ticket and then whose flights were cancelled by Air Canada, and then had to purchase another one on a repatriation flight operated by Air Canada.”

Discover More: Travellers Rejoice

While the final repatriation flight from Peru departed on Thursday, efforts to return Canadians home from far-off places like India and Nepal continue. Global Affairs Canada estimates 3 million citizens are living abroad and roughly 2 million have returned home or are in the process of doing so. Two weeks after she flew back to Toronto and fulfilled her duty to self-quarantine, Shah was still waiting for her Air Canada credit for the original return flight she had to cancel after leaving Machu Picchu in distress.

“I would not expect the Canadian government to pay for me. It is not like it is a warlike time in only one country. Out of about 200 countries that have the virus, they have to bring back people from many of them. I don’t think it is reasonable for anyone to expect that of them,” Shah said. “At the same time, I have to say I do feel like I have been taken advantage of because I’m in a situation where I want to just get home safely. If Air Canada is trying to make a profit out of these repatriation flights then I think it is an unreasonable thing to do. But I am also thankful that those guys made the effort to take us out. That’s the most important thing when it comes down to it.”

“The Pandemics” Poem

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“The Pandemics” is a poem by Adrian Brijbassi about the COVID-19 crisis. (Vacay.ca photo illustration)

The Pandemics

Revelry will be ours,
In Tiber too,
When madness ebbs and the hunger game ends
With a dance that tests your bravery to embrace
A future not so grim
It will be yours and hers,
Theirs and his,
All of ours, made to exist in a metre’s length Inferno
of I-Can’t-Take-Any-More-of-This

We are The Pandemics,
Providers of history’s next chapter on Who’d-a-Guessed?
The Hoaxsters and The Immortals
whose fearlessness against fact enshrines them
as eternity’s dopey jests
The Soothsayers and OCD DoomsDayers
who will forever have this hollow win
The Sirens of Science and Heroes of Medicine
a battalion of goodness semaphoring the blind

The Dead, The Dead, The Dead,
buried, too many, without adulation, nor grace, nor light

We are the victims of hubris and Trump,
Textbook fools who could’ve and should’ve
To avoid disgrace

In the distance, the torment stems,
and we rejoice again,
Speaking words of wisdom
while stomping a microscopic fiend to the beat,
Arms in link, we are a circle of backs
still bristling from the chill

In the dawn, here and there,
New Rochelle and Bergamo,
Wuhan and Washing-tons,
our hands clap, at last,
it is gone,
yet we cling in silence,
each of us wary
of what one cool water droplet, a splash
from a neighbour’s pore, might again cause

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.