WestJet set to slash international, domestic flights amid coronavirus outbreak

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WestJet Airlines is set to slash its international seat capacity by 60 per cent and cut domestic flights by at least 40 per cent amid government actions to limit travel to contain the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Calgary-based WestJet has halted capital projects and asked vendors for price cuts, but did not say how many layoffs are in store for the company’s 12,000 flight attendants, pilots and others employees.

“We continue to see a significant reduction in demand and are evaluating all available measure to secure the financial viability of our airline,” Canada’s second-largest airline said late Saturday.

WestJet did not confirm news reports that half of WestJet’s flight attendants will be laid off, but said that is one of the scenarios being considered. “Unfortunately, we … have no alternative but to reduce the number of employees. Our first and most preferred option is to ask WestJetters to consider voluntary leaves, unpaid vacation, reduced work time among other voluntary measures.”

The federal government is warning Canadians not to travel abroad, and to stay off cruise ships as a growing number of countries – including Canada – try to contain the deadly virus. The United States has barred non-U.S. travellers from certain European countries, and many airlines are parking planes and cancelling routes amid plummeting demand for air travel. “New restrictions may be imposed with little warning,” the government said. “Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected.”

Marc Garneau, Transport Minister, said on Friday Canada will restrict incoming international flights to a yet-to-be determined list of Canadian airports. The move could make returning home tougher for Canadians but is intended to allow the government to better screen people for COVID-19 exposure.

“Our goal is to continue to fly our international flights and return as many Canadians home as possible as the demand for inbound travel remains strong at this time,” WestJet said.

Global airline stock prices have tumbled along with broader markets as the world’s biggest economies essentially shut down to limit the spread of the disease. People around the world are being told by health authorities to stay home, not travel and limit social interactions.

Despite the government warnings against non-essential international travel, some airlines are offering deep discounts to holiday destinations. Sunwing Airlines is offering discounts of 50 per cent and 56 per cent on Caribbean resort packages for the next two weeks.

WestJet’s discount brand Swoop is selling one-way tickets to Mexican destinations for $101 and to Las Vegas for as low as $69, depending on departure dates and locations. “Prices so low you gotta go!” the Swoop ad says above an image of a toilet paper roll. “Unrolling some big deals!” Swoop’s website said on Sunday.

WestJet did not immediately respond to e-mails and a voice message on Sunday asking if the toilet paper image was an attempt to make light of the panicked buying – and shortages – of toilet paper across Canada in recent days as worried people stock their cupboards in preparations for possible quarantines to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

WestJet and Sunwing did not immediately respond to messages on Sunday asking why they were promoting international travel at a time the government advises against it.

WestJet said on Saturday the Public Health Agency of Canada determined a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to Calgary from London Gatwick Airport on March 5 on Flight WS2. WestJet said anyone in rows 36 to 40 of that flight should heed health officials’ advice and self-isolate for 14 days. Two other customers flew to Toronto from Phoenix, Ariz., with the illness on Flight 1199 on Feb. 28.