Air Transat ‘deeply sorry’ for denying Ukrainian couple flight to Canada, leading to deportation

Air Transat says it is “deeply sorry” after airline agents wrongfully denied a Ukrainian couple fleeing the Russian invasion a flight to Canada, leading to their deportation from Greece. 

Oksana Korolova and Leonid Korolev are Ukrainian citizens with Canadian visas who were supposed to come to Canada on an Air Transat flight Monday from Athens to Toronto.

Volunteers with Ukraine Help Middlesex group, a grassroots group that helps sponsor and resettle Ukrainian refugees in London, Ont., was supposed to pick them up from Pearson International Airport and then reunite the couple with their son, Max Korolova, who is already in London. 

However, his mother and father never left Athens on the Canadian airline. Instead, they were kicked off the flight by Air Transat agents who wouldn’t let them board because Korolev holds a Russian passport and doesn’t meet Canadian COVID-19 vaccination requirements. 

‘They’re not going on vacation’

“Air Transat made a mistake. If there was a different service agent who knew a little bit better the regulations, he would be allowed to fly,” Sanja Dammeier, a volunteer with the Ukraine Help Middlesex group, told CBC News on Tuesday. 

Air Transat says it is ‘deeply sorry’ that a Ukrainian couple with Canadian visas were deported after airline agents denied them a flight to Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dammeier is referring to a policy under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET), which gives Ukrainian citizens with a valid Canadian visa through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) an exemption from Canadian COVID-19 vaccine requirements for international travellers

“They’re not tourists. They’re not going on vacation. They are flying out of a war zone and then they treat them like this? It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible,” Dammeier said. 

“He has a Canadian visa to come to Canada. He’s a Ukrainian citizen. He’s allowed to come, but the airline personnel messed it up.” 

Rather than leave her husband behind, Korolova chose to stay with Korolev in Athens. 

Max Korolova said he spoke Tuesday morning with his parents, who don’t speak English and were denied to access to a translator by Greek authorities who intercepted them at the departure gate. 

At that point, Max said, Greek police had them deported back to Instanbul, the city from which the couple had arrived. 

Airline acknowledges ‘error on our part’

“For them, its highly disappointing because they were under shelling and almost at the front line and they escaped from the war, and right now they were deported from Greece to Istanbul,” Max said.

“They are in a hotel in Istanbul. They have some money for the hotel, but it’s not a good hotel. It’s an emergency hotel.”

Max said that since his parents were deported Monday, he’s been taking walks to help deal with the anxiety and feeling of powerlessness over knowing his parents are trapped in another country. 

On Tuesday, Air Transat apologized and said its agents made a mistake at the departure gate when they denied Korolev entry to the plane, something they had no right to do.

“This situation was indeed an error on our part at the check-in counter,” Bernard Côté, director of communications for Air Transat, wrote to CBC News in an email Tuesday. 

“While Mr. Korolev presented us with a Russian passport, not exempting him from Canadian vaccination requirements, Ms. Korolova’s Ukrainian passport should have allowed the couple to board its flight as they are married. 

“We are deeply sorry for this situation and for what Ms. Korolova and Mr. Korolev had to go through. We are working on quickly changing their booking so they can safely land in Canada and are in contact with their sponsors directly to arrange their travels.”

Dammeier said Air Transat officials had been in contact with her group Tuesday about arranging a new flight, and airline officials said they wanted to route the couple through Athens again, which she said wouldn’t work. 

“Leonid cannot enter Greece for six months minimum,” she said. “Now they are working on hopefully putting them on direct flight from Istanbul to Toronto” on Wednesday.

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