Island couple on plane with coronavirus hoaxer as vacation flight turned back

The man standing in the aisle with pink hoodie, mask and gloves informed a WestJet crew that he had been in China and wasn’t feeling well in what was later determined to be a hoax. The plane had to return to Toronto, delaying holidayers’ plans for 24 hours.

TORONTO – The new deadly respiratory disorder COVID-19 that has grabbed global headlines has another connection to Manitoulin, although this time an Islander was a witness to an ill-conceived publicity stunt when a fellow plane traveller made a false report that he had the coronavirus.

“It was a pretty insane ordeal,” said Rhiana Buchanan, a Gore Bay resident who was travelling with her husband to their home in Linstead, St. Catherine in Jamaica.

The two boarded WestJet flight 2702 on February 3 from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay and were nearly off the North American mainland at the south tip of Florida when their plane began banking to the left, made a 180-degree turn and headed back for Toronto.

Ms. Buchanan’s husband Ricardo Buchanan nudged her. Ms. Buchanan took off her headphones and he said the captain had announced that there was a problem and the flight would be returning home.

“I stopped a steward and asked what was happening. He very calmly said ‘somebody has declared they had coronavirus, and we have them quarantined at the back of the plane. Because of the laws, we have to go back to Pearson and we’ll keep you updated as we go on’,” said Ms. Buchanan.

A 28-year-old Vaughan man who is an Instagrammer and SoundCloud rapper was heading to Jamaica to film a music video. Well into the flight, he pulled out his phone and began filming a video of himself in which he announced to the passengers that he had recently travelled from the Chinese Hunan province and wasn’t feeling well. For the record, COVID-19 originated in the province of Hubei.

Flight attendants rushed to the man who explained that he was joking and had never been to China.

The joke didn’t land well.

Due to strict protocols in place at the time, the man was given a face mask and gloves and escorted to a seat in the rear of the plane. The plane then had to return to its origin point until the threat could be properly assessed.

“Everyone was really angry on the plane, but there was quite a solemn tone as well. About an hour later, I happened to notice that there was a gentleman in a pink hoodie sitting right behind my husband and I. I turned to my husband and said ‘he wasn’t there before,’” said Ms. Buchanan.

The plane got back to Pearson and came to a stop in a remote part of the airport away from the terminals. Marshals and medical staff came aboard and made their way to the supposedly ill passenger.

“Of course, I see the guy right behind us stand up. I’m not very impressed and I’m freaking out, to say the least. At that point, I didn’t know it was a hoax,” said Ms. Buchanan.

The Expositor asked her if she had exchanged any words with him as he was being removed from the plane, to which she replied, with a laugh, “nothing that you could print in your paper!”

The man was taken off the plane and within 15 minutes the pilot spoke over the intercom to share that the man had nothing wrong with him and had done this as a publicity stunt. The flight remained cancelled so the passengers had to de-plane onto buses that took them to Terminal 3.

“This was a senseless, careless act that ruined 243 passengers’ days,” said Ms. Buchanan. She was fortunate in that she was spending several weeks down south unlike those enjoying hard-earned vacations for only a few days who would have been impacted the most.

“The coronavirus isn’t something to be made into a publicity stunt for fame. Real people are dying, real people are sick. There’s no joke to be made about any of that,” said Ms. Buchanan. 

Rhiana and Ricardo Buchanan snap a selfie aboard their WestJet flight to Jamaica before it was turned around in a coronavirus scare.

The old saying of every cloud having a silver lining proved true in this instance. Ms. Buchanan said the airline and officials from both countries were very sympathetic and accommodating to everyone affected by the man’s 15 minutes of fame.

“WestJet was awesome, awesome, awesome during the whole ordeal. They put everyone up at a Holiday Inn. My husband and I had purchased an AirBnB before we knew what was happening just in case; they comped that and gave everyone cab vouchers to the hotel and back in the morning,” said Ms. Buchanan.

Within a half hour of getting back to the terminal they knew when their flight would be departing in the morning. Alcohol was free for the trip down—“I didn’t pay for one G and T,” said Ms. Buchanan with a laugh.

“When we arrived in Jamaica, the entire plane erupted in cheers and laughter and applause. We got off the plane and were greeted by a drum band singing and playing the drums, which was really cool,” she said.

Airport officials handed out welcome to Jamaica bags with souvenirs and memorabilia inside and the passengers got their own customs line to get into the country, despite the airport being quite busy at the time.

“I have more respect for air travel now based on the rules and protocol they follow. Yes, I’m really mad that the trip got delayed, anybody would be. But they couldn’t have been more courteous and accommodating,” said Ms. Buchanan. “It’s not the airline’s fault, it was that idiot’s fault. I don’t blame them at all and I have a lot of respect for the way they handled it.”

As for the rapper (which this newspaper has elected not to name because it would help give him the fame he so desperately desires), Ms. Buchanan and her husband said his tactics for attention are an indication for his level of talent as a musician.

“He’s going to be well-known for that and not the musical talents he thinks he has. I don’t wish him any harm, but I am peeved that he ruined all of our days.”

The rapper’s Instagram follower count rose by more than 4,000 in the days following the incident, an increase of 423,100 percent according to social media tracking tool Social Blade.

The Vaughan man has been charged with mischief and breach of recognizance and will be appearing in court in early March.

Map of the WestJet flight rerouting.