VANCOUVER – More than 200 Air Canada passengers on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver found themselves unexpectedly in Washington State earlier this week, with little help from airline staff as they scrambled to make arrangements and figure out what to do about cannabis products.
Flight AC 125 re-routed to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport late in the evening Sunday after foggy conditions kept it from landing at YVR and other Canadian airports. The airline says a mechanical issue that came up as the 787 Dreamliner was grounded necessitated the removal of passengers from the aircraft altogether.
Harold Wax, a frequent traveler, was on the flight and said passengers began discussing potential issues with customs, considering few passengers were likely to have brought passports or visas for what was scheduled as a domestic flight.
“I said to my neighbour, ‘I wonder how many passengers on this plane have cannabis or CBD on them and weren’t anticipating landing in the United States,’ and her eyes literally popped out of her skull and she said ‘I have CBD oil on me for my bad joints,'” Wax told CTV News Vancouver.
While it’s legal for adults to carry up to 30 grams of cannabis in Canada, officials have warned that no one should cross international borders with it, especially to a country like the U.S., where some states have legalized the drug, but the federal policy remains strictly opposed to cannabis.
“They risked lifetime bans from the United States and the only way to overcome that is hundreds of dollars of a special fee each time they seek entry,” said Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.
He believes airlines like Air Canada should do more to protect passengers, suggesting they have an obligation to do so.
“As soon as Air Canada pilots are aware of emergency landing in the United States two things should happen,” said Kurland. “First, they should alert the passengers of an immigration customs search of material in their possession, that will include cannabis. Second thing, keep those washrooms open for as long as possible because people who are in possession of what’s legal in Canada have to decide: do I want to risk lifetime ban in the United States, or do I want to just trash my stash?”
“We’re on our own”
For Wax, a long-time security consultant, he was more concerned about the lack of support from Air Canada after three hours spent waiting on the tarmac.
“On the plane they’re telling us get off the plane, get off, customs and everything will be ok, there’ll be someone waiting for you on the other side – but not only is there nobody there, now you’re stuck,” he said. “You can’t get back through security, there’s literally nobody there to help us and we’re on our own. It definitely felt an abandonment from Air Canada.”
The airline sent an email statement to CTV News, which reads in part: “Air Canada is handled by a partner company in Seattle, and special, exceptional arrangements were immediately made for the U.S. authorities to enable all customers to clear customs without the usual documentation. We were advised there were no issues during the customs clearance process.”
But Air Canada also acknowledges there was only one staffer at the airport to handle baggage, customer service duties and customs issues. It says “they returned to the desk to advise customers that arrangements had been made for people to proceed directly to local hotels where accommodations had been secured. Air Canada agents from YVR were also sent to Seattle to assist customers.”
Wax said passengers had to make their own arrangements and was told by a customer service agent on the phone that they would be reimbursed later.
“I’ve got the means to fend for myself, but I guarantee there’s other people on this plane that either don’t have credit cards, don’t have money. What are they going to do? You’re kind of leaving people in the lurch,” he told the agent.