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Imagine a Canadian charter aircrew arrested in the Dominican Republic, identified by jail guards as informants against a drug cartel in a squalid cell shared with narcotraficantes, and stripped naked while worrying about other threats.
That and other horrific elements sound like a movie script, but that’s been the grim reality for two Pivot Airline pilots and at least one of two flight attendants (one is a female who was held separately), as well as a mechanic who’s an Indian national with permanent residency in Canada. Moreover, even though all were released on bail, they and the company are still having to contend with aggressive prosecutors who want them back in jail pending a review, which could take 12 months!
The crew and seven passengers were aboard Pivot’s Bombardier CRJ 100 (C-FWRR), preparing for a return flight to Toronto, when the mechanic was asked by Pivot’s operations control center in Toronto to retrieve a door access code from a computer in the aircraft’s avionics bay.
That routine procedure immediately became quite the opposite when the mechanic found a gym bag in the bay. Finding a second bag, he took a photo and reported it to the flight crew who have thousands of logged flight hours between them. Flight preparations were immediately stopped and everyone was advised by the pilot to deplane while the initial two bags – and six more – were removed. They were eventually found to contain more than 200 kilograms of cocaine.
(RCMP said April 10 that a kilogram can be worth $47,000-$50,000 on the street, putting the potential value of the seized cocaine at up to $10 million – or more if it had made it to Canada and then crossed into the U.S. market.)
Pivot Airlines’ chief executive officer, Eric Edmondson, told Skies that while the company has been blind-sided, he’s encouraged by the support his people are receiving from Canadian consular officials in the DR, and even more so by the staff’s unions.
The pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the flight attendants by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
“Both organizations have helped tremendously in every way,” Edmondson said. CUPE has been pressing the Canadian government and cautioning its 70,000 members across the country to be cautious about travel to the Dominican Republic.
“They continue to be very vocal at all levels here and down there,” he said. “They’re also working the tourism aspect; their pitch is, ‘Look, we’re the people who carry a million Canadians to the Dominican every year, and we’re going to stop doing it.’ ”
The maintenance crewmember is with UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private-sector union with more than 315,000 members across the country in many sectors.
In addition to its consular support on the ground in what Edmondson called “definitely a battle of inches,” Global Affairs Canada said in a late April travel advisory that Canadians should “exercise a high degree of caution in the Dominican Republic due to crime.”
Edmondson, who has flown professionally for more than 20 years in various industry segments – air ambulance, cargo, airlines, corporate, and executive charter – pointed out that his crew had been fully compliant with Dominican authorities from the outset.
Moreover, even though it was happening outside of Canada, Pivot advised the RCMP.
“The RCMP informed us that there was a liaison officer stationed in the Republic and provided us with the appropriate contact information, which we relayed to our fixed-base operator there,” said Edmondson.
When the local police arrived, they removed the bags and began checking out other parts of the aircraft.
All the while, the Pivot crew was “just casually being questioned” as various panels were removed from the jet. “Overall, it was a four- to five-hour process,” Edmondson recounted. The situation then took a sinister turn when he lost contact with his crew for nearly six hours. “We eventually found out that they had been taken away in shackles!”
It took most of that first day to finally re-establish contact and then another full day to determine whether they were to be released. Meanwhile, acting on advice from the Canadian embassy in Santo Domingo, Pivot retained local counsel for the crew.
“And so the process began,” he said — a process that was rooted in a “very unfortunate uninformed decision” by the local police. “If they’d spent 30 seconds on Google, they wouldn’t have jumped to the unsupportable conclusion they did.”
A database search on the jet’s tail number showed, correctly, that it had flown 99 legs in the previous year — mainly in the Caribbean with a few to Mexico — and the police concluded that it must be involved in the narcotics trade.
“It was a massive error in their logic,” Edmondson said. “I believe that was the only trigger that tied the crew to the contraband – other than being the people who had informed the authorities about the contraband on the aircraft.”
A simple Google search, he said, would have shown the Dominican police that Pivot had a capacity purchase agreement with InterCaribbean Airways, a scheduled service and regional charter carrier, from December 2021 to January 2022. It operated under IWY (the International Civil Aviation Organization’s designator for ICA) from Provo Airport in Turks and Caicos, where ICA’s parent company, InterIsland Aviation Services Group, is headquartered at Providenciales.
The police database search also disclosed that they had flown to Suriname on the northeast Atlantic Coast of South America several times in the year before that. Edmondson said that if the police had asked, Pivot would have produced its contract with a large global publicly-traded mining company to transport its workers during the Covid-19 pandemic every few weeks.
But “entirely incompetent” police work resulted in the crew being jammed into a 100-square-foot communal cell with two dozen alleged narcotics traffickers. “It was broadly distributed throughout the center by the guards that our people had been informants on the cartel; obviously an exceptionally dangerous situation.”
The result was death threats from low-level narcotraficantes hoping to gain favor with cartel bosses, as well as constant extortion threats.
“This went on 24 hours a day,” he added. “And because they had to buy their own food, they would be shaken down for their money and if money did get to the food supplier, it would be taken not only by the other inmates, but also the guards.”
So Pivot arranged for an “advocate” to stay in the center with the crew to ensure access to food and humane treatment. It also paid extra every day for a separate cell, but the crew often was returned to the general population at night.
They were in their flight uniforms which made them stand out, a tactic Edmondson said was “for the sole purpose of creating fear.” They eventually were given civilian clothing, but only after they had been stripped in the communal cell. It would be a week before Pivot was able to persuade a judge that they should be released on bail.
But even that was problematic. In explaining his decision, which Edmondson agreed was legally correct, the judge’s wording seemed to underscore the notion that the crew had been informants. Since they were out on the street and potentially vulnerable, Pivot arranged for an international security firm to provide 24/7 protection, which also involved relocating them “a few times” where there was a new threat.
Then the Dominican government’s prosecutor filed notice of an appeal against the judge’s decision to grant bail. That was served April 29, and all the while the prosecution failed to show new evidence that tied the crew, the aircraft, or Pivot to any involvement in drugs – other than that someone had stashed the cocaine aboard.
“The crew found it and reported it; they did exactly what a crew was supposed to do,” Edmondson said. “Nobody has produced any evidence to the contrary, and that’s where we are today.”
While he’s confident there are no legal grounds for reincarcerating the crew, a process which could see them held for up to 12 months without being charged, he justifiably shares the crew’s fears that they could be killed in the meantime. He also pointed out that returning them to custody would be “a one-way ticket” due to the public knowledge of their alleged role as informers.
And local news media’s biased coverage in one of the Caribbean’s most corrupt countries (according to annual data in the World Justice Report publications), hasn’t helped either.
Pivot has asked that its employees be permitted to return to Canada under bond, saying it would ensure that the crew at least would remain available for “due process” in the Republic. “We would happily allow the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, or any other ‘law interest’ access for interviews or an investigation.”
But he admitted that this was “very unlikely to succeed” because Canada does not have an extradition treaty with the Dominican Republic. That said, “we think the government has to step in and ensure that our crew are returned to Canada,” he said. “We are committed to them going through the legal process, but we also have to ensure they’re protected.”
There’s also the need to ensure the safety of the aircraft, which is leased from Calgary-based Avmax Aircraft.
All in all, it’s been a horrendous ordeal for Pivot, which is owned by a private equity firm, Binder Capital Corporation, which also is headquartered in Calgary. Other than the ICA work, it mostly flies essential service charters and has been in business for just under 24 months.
Pivot only has the single aircraft for now, a decision motivated by a desire to not take on debt by maintaining a small infrastructure until there are signs of a recovery from the various Covid-19 waves.
“In some ways, we’ve been very lucky during Covid because . . . we had a full book of essential service charters to complete,” Edmondson said. “We basically flew as much as any one airplane could fly, and we really had no complaints all through Covid. We came close to pulling the trigger a couple of times on an airplane, but put the brakes on that when the Omicron variant hit. . . . However, we do expect to grow.”