The first of several special Air Canada repatriation flights carrying hundreds of Canadians fleeing from the war in Israel is expected to arrive back in Toronto on Friday afternoon, Oct. 13.
According to a news release from Air Canada, the airline is supporting the Canadian government’s official airlift operation, which began Thursday. Two Royal Canadian Air Force Polaris CC-150 transport planes left from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday for Athens, Greece carrying a total of 181 Canadians and permanent residents, according to senior government officials who spoke to reporters at a technical briefing in Ottawa.
While seats on those military flights were free, the second leg of the trip home on Air Canada will not be, nor will any hotel accommodations required overnight in the Greek capital.
According to the airline, its special flight departing from Athens on Friday will be a wide-bodied jet with enough seats for 300 passengers to fly home. All of the passengers who arrive on the military transports will be offered seats on the special Air Canada flight. They can use their existing unused Air Canada tickets, or for those who did not have tickets, buy new ones, using a government code.
Air Canada will mount a second special repatriation flight from Athens to Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Saturday, Oct. 14, officials said.
Air Canada halted flights into and out of Tel Aviv airport on Sunday, Oct 8.
On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists launched a surprise invasion from Gaza into southern Israel, killing at least 1,300 people including three Canadians, and wounding another 3,000. An estimated 150 people, including several Canadians, have been kidnapped and taken hostage by Hamas.
Although Canadian government officials estimate at least 15,000 Canadians or permanent residents may be in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, only slightly over half of them have registered through Global Affairs Canada’s portal. And of the 7,765 people who did register, only 1,600 have said they want to leave using seats on the Canadian military’s evacuation flights.
So far there are no flights arranged for those people located in the West Bank, although the government said other options are being arranged, including possibly to transport them out through Jordan. For the 100 Canadians currently in the Gaza Strip, a senior official told reporters “assisted departures are not possible at this time.”
Ottawa is “trying to get other options for those who can’t get to Tel Aviv,” she said, referring to any Canadians impacted by the fighting in the south, or close to Israel’s northern border, which the government warns “remains fragile”.
Those Canadians who are eligible for the military airlift from Tel Aviv to Greece, and have registered with all their travel documents cleared, will receive instructions directly from Global Affairs Canada concerning their flight times and when to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport for the military leg of their journey. The RCAF is operating two departing flights per day from Tel Aviv.
The first two got out on Thursday safely to Athens.
Two more military flights are scheduled for Friday and another two on Saturday, Oct. 14. Officials said these rescue flights could be continued for longer, depending on demand.
“We’ll know we meet the need when the numbers go down,” a senior official with Global Affairs Canada said, on background, adding that more and more Canadians in the region have been registering in the past 24 hours. “We’ve seen a bump today.”
Canadians in Israel frustrated
While Air Canada’s special rescue flights out of Athens are underway, many Canadians who are now trying to get home from Israel are critical of the federal government, and of the airline, for how they’ve handled the crisis so far.
Toronto personal injury lawyer Alf Kwinter and his wife Gayle, a retired teacher, just boarded Friday’s morning military airlift to Athens.
The couple had been on holiday in Tel Aviv with their children in Israel for six weeks, and were originally scheduled to return to Toronto this Saturday via Air Canada. But after the Hamas raid, and rockets landing near the airport, the Canadian airline cancelled all flights.
“Air Canada sort of threw us onto our own resources,” said Alf Kwinter, 77.
The Kwinters soon found themselves embroiled in a frustrating and “stressful” on-again-off-again flurry of bookings and cancellations with Air Canada.
The company first tried to get them out using Royal Jordanian. Then they offered rides on Emirates, he said.
“Every time they arranged a flight you got notified very soon after that, it was cancelled. Arranged, cancelled, arranged, cancelled, arranged, cancelled,” Kwinter said.
Their friends and other people they know have told them that no one was answering the phones at the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the Thanksgiving weekend, when the war started, although the Kwinters did not try to call the mission themselves at that time.
It bothers Kwinter that the recorded message wished callers a Happy Thanksgiving. Not only didn’t they say anything about the war, he joked, but it didn’t even mention the fact Israel had been enjoying a holiday weekend.
“One of my friends who wasn’t even Jewish said they didn’t even have the sense to say “Happy Sukkot”, he said.
Global Affairs Canada insists emergency staff were working out of the department’s Ottawa office on the long weekend, and officials have described the Tel Aviv Embassy as “operational”. But critics including Melissa Lantsman, the Conservative Party of Canada’s deputy leader, who represents the heavily Jewish riding of Thornhill, and former Canadian ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici, have said they received many calls for assistance, because the embassy was closed for the long weekend.
Some private firms have chartered rescue flights out already.
The Canadian ambassador to Israel, Lisa Stadelbauer, told the Toronto Star she personally was out of the country that weekend, and wasn’t able to get a flight back to Israel until Tuesday, Oct. 10. Global Affairs told reporters the embassy reopened on Monday.
Kwinter is upset that it took until now for Canada to mobilize an airlift of citizens out of the war torn country, even if Tel Aviv, where he was, has quieted down a lot after the initial few days of rocket attacks.
“So where are the military flights, when France has brought in military flights? Australia has brought in, every other country has brought in military flights. Where are our military flights?” Kwinter asks.
Four days after the war started, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly announced details of the Royal Canadian Air Force rescue mission to shuttle Canadians out of Israel. At the time, Joly suggested the mission wouldn’t get underway until later in the week.
Kwinter’s wife Gayle, dutifully called the embassy and registered themselves for the military airlift. But he feels the government moved much too slowly.
“Well, they hope, they say, to start them [the flights] at the end of the week? Not terribly impressive.”
(The British and French governments’ special repatriation flights to bring their nationals out of Israel also began on Thursday. Meanwhile Australia’s rescue flights on Qantas Airways were due to start on Friday.)
In the end, the Kwinters decided not to wait for Air Canada to resume service, whenever that may happen. Nor did they wait for the government’s military flights. Instead, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They secured tickets on other airlines using third party travel sites including Trip.com and Kiwi.com.
Kwinter and his wife were set to leave Tel Aviv on Friday for Athens on their own flight, where they will stay overnight. Then, on Saturday, they were booked to board a regularly scheduled Air Canada flight from Athens to take them home to Toronto.
Their son Shane Kwinter, also a lawyer, happened to be visiting his parents this week in Tel Aviv, when the rockets started flying over central and southern Israel. It was Shane’s first trip to the Jewish state in 24 years.
“I can’t wrap my head around the fact that out of all the times that I picked, it’s like one of the worst incidents in Israeli history and I’m here to witness it basically. I mean, it’s crazy,” he said. “The odds are unbelievable.”
The younger Kwinter also made his own arrangements to return to Toronto. He left Friday from Tel Aviv and has now landed in Dubai, and, then, like his parents, will fly out for home the next day on Air Canada.
At the last moment, however, his parents managed to get seats on the RCAF airlift flight to Athens, leaving Friday morning. At the airport, they met both Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, who had arrived to give the stranded Canadians a send off. They also posed for photos with Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, Lisa Stadelbauer.
Despite the harrowing first days when Tel Aviv came under fire, the Kwinters didn’t feel they were personally in danger, despite what their panicked friends and family back in Canada feared.
“We went to the beach and the beach was mostly deserted,” said Shane Kwinter.
“Yeah, there’s no indication that it’s dangerous to go anywhere quite frankly and we haven’t heard sirens now for a while,” his father added.
Air Canada, meanwhile, has not said when it plans to resume regular service to Israel.
In a statement, the company said the suspension is in effect until Oct. 31. The president expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Israel, and pledged to keep a close eye on the security situation.
“We have flown to Israel since 1995 and it is a very important part of our network,” said Michael Rousseau in a news release. “Air Canada is committed to resuming commercial operations as soon as the situation stabilises.”
On Thursday, Global Affairs Canada reported that it had rushed 15 additional members of the department’s Standing Rapid Deployment Team to the region, to beef up staffing at its offices in Tel Aviv, Amman, and Athens. It had a further 25 officers on duty all night on Wednesday at its emergency call centre, and there were now no wait times.