Stephen Bennett was ejected from a WestJet flight after he fell asleep before takeoff. The British Columbia resident had taken a sleeping pill before boarding a flight to Cuba for a family vacation. Prior to take off, he was woken up by a flight attendant and asked to vacate the aircraft for being “under the influence of drugs upon boarding,” according to a WestJet spokesperson.
The incident left Bennett “in tears” and disrupted his family vacation. Bennett’s wife, Josefa Sapelino, woke him up while the plane was on the tarmac after a crew member informed her that “he had to go.” The couple was also traveling with their son.
“[The flight attendant] said he had to be awake in case they had some kind of an air flight accident — he had to be alert,” said Shelley Hickey, who was seated near the couple.
Bennett said he had had a stroke two months prior and took a sleeping pill to relieve leg pain and exhaustion. A nurse aboard the flight who examined Bennett after the crew member expressed concern said he was fine. Despite her reassurance, paramedics escorted Bennett off of the aircraft. “It was so humiliating,” he told the BBC. “Basically, the stewardess became judge, jury and executioner.”
Bennett said he was not allowed to board again even after paramedics gave him the go ahead and his doctor sent an email confirming he was able to fly. “I was in tears,” Bennett said.
“To be clear, this is not about sleeping but about being under the influence of drugs upon boarding,” a spokesperson for WestJet said. “In addition, we have accounts from our crew that differ significantly from the account the guest is giving.”
“When our crews observe a guest, who is exhibiting signs of not being fit to fly, we will, out of an abundance of caution and in adherence with Transport Canada’s regulations remove the guest from the flight,” the statement continued. “These decisions are not taken lightly but are made for the safety of the guest in question, other guests on the aircraft and our crews. We regret the inconvenience to our guest when situations like this occur."
The airline added that the crew is responsible for determining the state of each passenger and refusing those they deem not fit to fly. The decision is considered a safety measure in order to avoid further risk during the flight. The airline stated that it supports the crew’s decision.
Bennett said he requested a new flight at a customer service desk but was informed that there wasn’t a flight available until the following week. He said he was patronized and told it was his fault. He was charged $1,600 to book another flight for his family and had to cover the expense of a stay in Toronto while they waited for the flight.
“We’re financially hurt. I’m so emotionally hurt,” he said, adding that he plans on suing.
WestJet has defended its decision saying that federal aviation regulations allow airlines, at their discretion, to deny boarding to passengers who show signs of posing a safety risk. The Canadian Transportation Agency states that if passengers feel they have been unjustly denied boarding, they can file a complaint with the regulator.