Unruly Sunwing passengers on their way back to Canada

A Cape Breton family that made headlines after they were allegedly caught smoking aboard a Sunwing Airlines jet from Halifax to the Dominican Republic last Friday are on their way home.

The aircraft was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Bermuda, which cost the airline an estimated $50,000.

In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Darlene MacNeil told CBC News she was at an airport in Bermuda with her husband and two sons waiting for a flight home.

MacNeil said when the family returns safely to Canadian soil, they'll tell their side of the story.

"Not at this point, I can't," said a tired MacNeil. "We definitely have things to say, but at this point we just want to get our family home."

David MacNeil, 54, Darlene MacNeil, 52, and David MacNeil Jr., 22, appeared in plea court in Hamilton, Bermuda, Monday after they were accused of smoking on a flight. All three were charged with disobeying lawful commands under the Air Navigation (Overseas Territories) Order.

MacNeil Sr. pleaded guilty to behaving in a disorderly manner and using abusive and insulting words. Darlene MacNeil pleaded guilty to disobeying lawful commands. David MacNeil Jr. was charged with smoking on the plane, but he denied the charge in court Monday.

Prosecutors decided not to proceed further with the charges, so in the end, no one was found guilty of smoking on the plane.

The two eldest MacNeils were sentenced to either a $500 fine or 10 days in prison. MacNeil Jr. was free to go.

Daryl McWilliams, vice-president of media relations with Sunwing, told CBC News in an interview Monday that the family will be banned from taking any Sunwing flights in the future. The ban, however, does not extend to other airlines.

Sunwing said Tuesday it still has every intention of bringing a $50,000 lawsuit against the MacNeils.

Mark Brancelj, president of the union of Sunwing flight attendants, CUPE Local 4055, speaking from Montreal said flight attendants are trained to treat any potential safety threat seriously.

"During the course of that flight, from my understanding of what the situation is, the flight attendants could smell cigarette smoke off, I guess it was MacNeil Jr. — but if they smelled that, we've been trained to deal with these types of things," he said.

"Smoking onboard aircraft is an extreme safety issue, it poses an extreme safety risk to everyone on board the aircraft and we do take it very seriously."

Brancelj said he wouldn't speculate on whether the flight crew overreacted to the situation.

"When it comes to the safety onboard of everyone there, you have over 180 passengers onboard the aircraft plus the crew itself. Smoking can cause a fire and an airplane is the worst place for that to happen. They take their job very seriously when it comes to the safety of the passengers and themselves and I'm sure they did everything that they thought was justified," he said.

"You don't smell cigarette smoke unless there's cigarette smoke there."

There has been a close to 700 per cent increase in the number of reported air rage incidents in recent years, says the United Nation's body on international air travel.

Between 2007 and 2009, the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization reported a 687 per cent increase in the number of air rage incidents internationally.

In a 2012 report, the ICAO revealed that, in 2011, there were 127 incidents of unruly passengers in the U.S., 488 in Australia and 44 in the U.K. Canadian numbers were not available.

The rise in incidents has prompted the ICAO to begin the process of rewriting the rules that allow unruly passengers to be brought to court.

The organization outlines a number of reasons for the jump including unprecedented growth in air travel, poor airline customer service, consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, smoking bans, overbooking, confined conditions and intrusive security measures.

One extreme example of an unruly passenger outlined in an ICAO report published in 2012 was the 2009 case of a man who forced the aircraft door open at 7,000 metres and jumped to his death over Nunavut.

Patrick Saul, an aviation lawyer working out of British Columbia, said the move to make the consequences of unruly behaviour more severe is not surprising.

"It can be a very serious matter so it's not surprising that the airlines take these events — even for something as minor as smoking in the washroom — very seriously," he said.

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