A dream New York tour turns into a Montreal airport nightmare for NL teens

Air Canada is apologizing for a situation that saw nearly three dozen teenagers from Conception Bay North, along with their five adult chaperones, stranded for three days in Montreal, dashing their hopes of visiting New York City.

The travel company that arranged the tour, henceforth, is not commenting.

But despite the unpleasant experience, the students remain determined to one day visit the city that’s famous for its arts scene and iconic landmarks.

In a statement to CBC News, an unnamed Air Canada spokesperson blamed unfavorable weather conditions and a shortage of air crew for what the airline described as a regrettable situation.

And since most flights are booked because of the busy summer travel season, the airline said its ability to rebook customers following a flight cancellation is limited, especially for large groups.

“As a result, we were unable to transport these customers as planned and we have apologized for not providing our normal levels of customer service,” the statement reads.

Stress and confusion

The 34 students — all 14 and 15 years old — from Amalgamated Academy in Bay Roberts and Holy Redeemer in Spaniard’s Bay departed St. John’s airport on an Air Canada flight on Saturday. They were accompanied by five teacher chaperones from their schools.

The educational tour was organized by a company called Brightspark by WorldStrides. The trip was a year in the making, and came with a price tag of nearly $4,000 per student.

a young teen sleeps on the floor at the airport in Montreal.
As the minutes stretched into hours at the airport in Montreal, there was not much for students to do but lay on the floor and nap. (Submitted by Stephanie Gifford)

New York City is one of the most famous cities in the world, and the four-day itinerary includes everything from a Broadway musical and shopping to visits to landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center.

The plan was the fly to Montreal, and connect with another flight to New York.

But a dream end-of-school-year adventure turned into three days and two nights of stress, confusion and discomfort, said Emma Gifford of Port de Grave, one of the students on the trip.

“It was very challenging because we were all there without our parents. For many of us it was our first time traveling without our parents,” she said.

A cascade of problems

After landing in Montreal, the tour group was forced to wait on the plane for two hours before learning their connecting flight to New York was cancelled.

That began a series of problems that included long waits at the airport terminal, late-night and early morning taxi rides to and from a nearby hotel, eating food from vending machines and growing increasingly tired and frustrated as delays piled on top of each other.

It was a challenging introduction to air travel for students like the Kairah March of Bareneed.

“It was kind of disappointing that the first time leaving Newfoundland, I spent most of the time in an airport. On an airport floor. It was pretty bad,” said March.

a group of young females pose for a photo
Some of the 34 Conception Bay North teens who saw their New York City dream vacation dashed this week are pictured here in Port de Grave. They are, front, left to right: Emma Gifford and Ally Bennett; back, Skylar Newell, Emily Smith, Sarah Holmes, Kairah March, Michela Hawco and Alexa Burton. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

On Sunday, word came down that the trip to New York was cancelled. It was a heartbreaking outcome for students who used the trip as motivation as they prepared for and wrote their year-end exams.

‘We just wanted to go home’

But that wasn’t the end of their turmoil travel. The students had to endure several more delays and hours of uncertainty before they finally arrived back at St. John’s International Airport Monday night.

“I felt helpless, and I know a lot of us did as well. It was fearful. We just wanted to go home,” said student Sarah Holmes.

While the students sweated it out in the humidity and smoke-filled air of Montreal, where wildfires in northern Quebec had dramatically lowered the air quality, parents back home in Newfoundland were scrambling for answers.

“Brightspark was saying you need to call Air Canada. And when we reached out to Air Canada, Air Canada said you needed to talk to Brightspark. So we had both companies putting the liabilities over to somebody else,” said Stephanie Gifford, Emma’s mother .

“From Saturday when she left, right up until Monday night, I didn’t know how she was getting home, didn’t know where she was sleeping in the evenings, didn’t know how she was eating.”

Some parents were preparing to board a plane and fly to Montreal, she said.

“(Emma) was very upset. She had nose bleeds. She was feeling sick. I know it’s embarrassing for her now. But she just wanted her mom. She wanted her family. She just wanted to be home and not on a floor in an airport.”

Brightspark says Air Canada ‘not much help’

A message to parents from Brightspark, which was obtained by CBC News, cited “unforeseen circumstances” for the travel turbulence. But the company also singled out Air Canada for criticism, saying the airline “was not much help in making alternate arrangements for the group.”

The message said “Brightspark did the best we could on short notice, hampered by (a) provincial holiday (Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day) on the weekend, to first and foremost ensure the safety of the students.”

Air Canada and Brightspark covered the cost of hotel accommodations, while Air Canada also provided daily food vouchers for the group. Brightspark also chartered a bus on Monday to transport the group from the hotel to a morning meal, to a shopping mall, and then to the airport.

three young students sit on the floor.  Two are smiling.  A third is holding two thumbs up gesture.
The students from the Bay Roberts and Spaniard’s Bay area spent long days at the Montreal airport, trying to make the best of a challenging situation, instead of enjoying a dream trip to New York City. (Submitted by Stephanie Gifford)

The breakfast was the first warm meal the students ate since Saturday morning, said Stephanie Gifford.

The students credit their chaperones for helping make the situation bearable, and note that the adversity helped solidify old and new friendships.

“I’m a lot closer to each and every one of them, because we spent a lot of time together,” said Ally Bennett of North River.

Many of the students are involved in the drama program at their schools, which is partly why they were drawn to Broadway’s famous theaters.

Meanwhile, the travelers were insured, but it’s not yet clear how much of their expenses will be refunded.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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