WATCH ABOVE: A Calgary family’s vacation didn’t end as expected after five kids spent two days in Cancun without their parents. Kim Smith explains.
Heather and Brad Sparkes and their collective five children spent 10 days in Cancun, Mexico to celebrate their one-year anniversary of becoming a family.
The couple had planned to send the kids, aged 10 to 17, home on their own on an Air Transat flight while they continued their vacation.
Heather said they had tried to preregister their youngest son into the Air Transat VIP program a year ago when they booked the trip, but the agent she spoke with said registration must be done at the airport at check-in.
The couple told Global News the kids left the hotel at 12:30 p.m. local time on April 1. They said about two hours later, the kids called them from the airport to say their flight had been delayed and that they were getting on a bus with the rest of the passengers to go to a different hotel.
The parents said they asked to speak to an Air Transat representative who assured them this was a temporary delay and that the flight would be leaving soon. The couple told Global News they had asked the representative if they could have the kids brought to their hotel instead, or to see if they could meet up with the kids, but were told the group needed to stay together so they did not miss their flight.
According to the family, this short delay ended up turning into a 48-hour waiting game for the kids who they say were on their own for two trips to the airport, three delayed flights, one flight that took off and returned within the hour, a pass through Mexican immigration and two nights stay at a hotel that was different than their parents.
Global News asked the couple why they didn’t just go to the hotel or the airport during this ordeal and they said it was incredibly difficult to get information from anyone from Air Transat.
“We always thought it was two hours, three hours away… and our kids are pretty good at getting through things, like at the end of the day,” Brad said.
Heather and Brad said they were on the phone with Air Transat for hours trying to get more information, and became really concerned when the kids contacted them closer to 10 p.m. Saturday to say they had checked into the hotel they were bussed to and were staying in two different rooms overnight.
“They checked them into a hotel. Five underage kids were checked into a hotel by themselves,” Heather said.
Despite multiple requests for updates from Air Transat, the couple said they received only one call on Sunday afternoon. Heather said the people she spoke with seemed dismissive and almost angry saying, ‘We don’t know what your problem is. They’ll be fine.’
In a Skype interview with Global News on Monday afternoon, the couple said details kept on changing about flight times and it added to the problem.
“I guess we probably had faith for a little longer than we should have. And by the time that we realized that the kids were alone, they were back at the airport,” Heather said.
“We did get ahold of someone and they downplayed it and made us feel like we were overreacting, that they (the kids) were going to be fine.
“We never thought it was going to be this long. We thought it was going to be hours,” Brad said.
— Kim Smith (@Kim_SmithTV) April 3, 2017
The couple said they kept Facetiming the kids on their phones that first night and made them go to their rooms. They also said they were in contact with them until they went back to the airport Sunday afternoon for a 2 p.m. flight.
According to the family, all of the passengers were taken back to the airport Sunday afternoon for a new flight that was also delayed. They said that flight eventually took off at 5 p.m., before turning around within an hour and landing back in Cancun. The kids messaged their parents again as they sat on the tarmac for five hours.
The couple said eventually, the plane deboarded and the kids had to go back through Mexican immigration alone, which is when they really started to get scared.
Heather said the kids were texting at midnight, saying they didn’t know how to go through immigration and they didn’t know how to fill out the papers.
“They told us, ‘We’re scared. We don’t know where to go.’ So we said to them, ‘Find somebody from Air Transat…’
“They told us, ‘There’s nobody here.’”
According to the Sparkes, all of the passengers were taken back to the hotel for a second night where their children checked in alone again before waking up at 7 a.m. Monday to catch a flight home.
That flight was also delayed but eventually landed at Calgary International Airport at 4:05 p.m. Monday.
Global News contacted Air Transat to get a comment on this specific case and to see if they had any suggestions to help families who are sending unaccompanied minors on flights.
Debbie Cabana, Air Transat’s marketing director, said this was a very unusual case.
According to Cabana, most unaccompanied minors will be brought to the airport by their parents or the kids will be registered to be a part of their VIP service.
The Air Transat website says the VIP service can be purchased up to three days prior to departure.
Air Transat told Global News they have requested a full report from the destination representative and will share it when they learn more details.
Cabana also said the representative told her Monday he had been in contact with the oldest child.
The Government of Canada website recommends a parent or guardian stays with an unaccompanied minor at the airport until the flight has departed.
The Sparkes’ kids seemed to share a collective feeling on the experience, telling Global News in Calgary it was difficult not having communication about what was happening and describing the ordeal as stressful.
“It was kind of fun for the first night. And then the second night was pretty bad,” 13-year-old Ryan said.
© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.