Pandemic crisis plunges Calgary airport to 1996-level passenger volumes

News from CBC News – link to story

Recovery to 2019 passenger volumes could take 3 to 5 years

CBC News · Posted: May 27, 2020

An Air Canada check-in desk at the Calgary airport on March 25 amid a worldwide COVID-19 flu pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The Calgary International Airport had 95 per cent fewer passengers in April because of COVID-19.

Approximately 67,000 guests arrived and departed last month, compared with 1.4 million guests in April 2019.

“Our airport has never seen such a steep decline in its history, and we are projecting 65 per cent fewer guests in 2020 compared to last year,” said Calgary Airport Authority vice-president and CFO Rob Palmer in a release.

“We expect YYC will go from a record 18 million passengers in 2019 to approximately 6.4 million in 2020. That’s roughly the same passenger volume as we had in 1996.”

By contrast, YYC saw a four per cent decrease in passenger activity after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And the 2008 financial crash resulted in only a 2.5 per cent drop. 

Although passenger volume is down dramatically, air cargo volume has grown substantially.

“In the first three months of 2020, air cargo landings increased by 17 per cent, and we expect that trend to continue as our air cargo partners meet the rising demand of e-commerce and the movement of critical supplies needed for health-care providers,” the authority said in a release.  

The airport has enrolled in the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, allowing the return of approximately 80 temporarily laid-off staff to its payroll.

Employees are receiving the maximum benefit of $847 weekly but are not required to return to work. 

About a third of the airport’s workforce was laid off at the end of March.

Executive leaders and senior managers took salary reductions, and those will remain in effect for the immediate future

The airport says a recovery to 2019 passenger volumes could take three to five years, or longer.

Air Canada Announces New Schedule Offering Customers Wide Choice of Destinations for Safe Travel this Summer and Expands Goodwill Policy

From Air Canada

  • New summer schedule includes nearly 100 destinations in Canada, the U.S. and worldwide
  • Options for new, fully-transferable voucher or Aeroplan Miles with 65% bonus starting June 1 mean more choices and flexibility for rebooking flights should travel plans change
  • Air Canada CleanCare+ biosecurity program offers greater protection from COVID-19 during all stages of the journey

MONTREAL, May 22, 2020 /CNW Telbec/ – Air Canada is offering customers a choice of nearly 100 destinations in Canada, the U.S. and around the world with an abridged schedule this summer. To ensure customers can book with confidence, the airline has implemented the Air Canada CleanCare+ biosecurity program and is introducing new cancellation options retroactive to March 1, 2020, to give customers greater flexibility and choice should their travel plans change for any reason.  

“Air Canada has put in place an abridged summer schedule offering a choice of nearly 100 destinations across Canada, in the U.S. and internationally. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which as much as 95 per cent of our flights stopped operating and which has left us flying to less than half last year’s destinations, our customers are expressing their eagerness to travel,  where it is safe to do so. We are accordingly gradually opening for sale flights for the summer and beyond as we rebuild our network, leveraging our strong position as a global airline. Air Canada is ready for take-off, and we look forward to welcoming our customers onboard,” said Lucie Guillemette, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Air Canada.

“While the world is making great progress against COVID-19, we know we must remain vigilant, which includes being flexible. This is why we are introducing two new solutions for customers should their travel plans change. In addition to our regular goodwill policies, starting June 1 we will offer customers the choice of a travel voucher with no expiry date that is fully transferable or to convert their booking into Aeroplan Miles and get an additional 65% bonus miles. Both options, retroactive to March 1, give customers greater confidence and flexibility to plan and book travel with Air Canada,” said Ms. Guillemette.

“Finally, to further ensure the safety of our customers and employees, we have introduced Air Canada CleanCare+, a comprehensive biosecurity program to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Air Canada CleanCare+ works through multi-layered measures that limit unnecessary interactions, require the use of personal protective equipment and employ state-of-the-art cleaning techniques onboard our aircraft. We have further committed to adopt new strategies and technologies as they become available.”

Summer Schedule

Due to COVID-19, Air Canada has had to abridge its selling schedule for summer 2020, with 97 destinations down from 220 last year, which nonetheless offers wide opportunities for travel and connectivity. Within Canada, the schedule will increase from 34 routes in May to 58 routes in June, with more routes added in August and September.  Air Canada has also updated its schedule until the end of July with resumption of some services to the U.S., Caribbean, South American, European and Pacific markets.

As part of the new schedule, in accordance with provisions for air travel to the U.S. for Canadians, Air Canada will resume service to the U.S. on May 22, with six destinations being served by May 25, including New York-LaGuardia, Washington-Dulles, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. This is a reduction from 53 U.S. destinations served last year. There are tentative plans to resume more U.S. service as of June 22, pending regulatory changes and demand. For information on travel to the U.S. please see https://help.cbp.gov/s/article/Article-1596?language=en_US

Internationally, Air Canada will continue to operate from its major hubs to key global destinations in June. This includes service from Toronto to Frankfurt, London, Zurich, Tokyo and Tel Aviv; from Montreal to Frankfurt, London, Paris and Brussels; and from Vancouver to London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul.

International services will expand further starting in June and early July, including: Montreal to Athens, Rome, Geneva; Toronto to Munich, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome and Athens; Calgary to Frankfurt; and, subject to government approval, Vancouver to Shanghai. 

Flexible Booking and Cancellation Policies

Under a revised goodwill policy, new bookings made up to June 30, 2020 can be changed without fees for original travel between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.

In cases where Air Canada cancels flights due to COVID-19, customers with refundable tickets will continue to have the option of refunds. Since January 1, 2020, Air Canada has refunded nearly $1 billion to customers.  Both customers with refundable and non-refundable tickets will have two new options to choose from:

  • An Air Canada Travel Voucher for the remaining value of their ticket that has no expiry date, is fully transferable and retains any residual value or;
  • The ability to convert the remaining value of their ticket into Aeroplan Miles, with 65 per cent more value versus the normal rate for buying Miles.

For voluntary changes, customers with refundable tickets will continue to have the option of refunds or the above new options. For Air Canada customers with non-refundable tickets making voluntary changes on tickets issued up to June 30, 2020, with an original travel date between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 inclusive, they have the option to choose from the two above new options of an Air Canada Travel Voucher or Aeroplan Miles.

The new goodwill policies and cancellation options are retroactive for customers with original travel between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. Customers whose flights have been cancelled due to the impacts of COVID-19 and who have already received travel credit valid for 24 months, will be able to select one of the applicable options depending on their fare at aircanada.com beginning June 15, 2020. Customers with Aeroplan Flight Rewards can continue to cancel their redemption bookings free of charge through June 30, 2020. 

For more information on Air Canada’s pandemic response, including information about Air Canada ClearCare+ and its revised summer schedule and goodwill policies, please see aircanada.com/readyfortakeoff.

WestJet Update: 10 May • Schedule to 4 July 2020

From Westjet – 10 May 2020

WESTJET UPDATES SCHEDULE FROM JUNE 5 THROUGH JULY 4, 2020 

WestJet has updated its schedule from June 5 through to July 4, 2020 to address significantly reduced guest demand for air travel while continuing to keep critical economic lifelines open for essential travel and cargo. At this time, WestJet is also extending its temporary transborder and international route suspensions through June 25, 2020. Guests with travel booked after June 5 through July 4, will be proactively notified of their options. Full schedule details are available on westjet.com

It is through the hard work and dedication of teams across WestJet that we continue to provide safe, on-time air travel throughout Canada. We thank all WestJetters and our airport partners for their support during this time. For information on WestJet’s COVID-19 response including health, safety and cleaning protocols, visit the WestJet COVID-19 site here

Domestic route suspensions from June 5 through July 4, 2020 

Market Previous frequency 
Vancouver – Nanaimo 2x daily 
Vancouver – Comox 1x daily 
Vancouver – Regina 4x weekly 
Vancouver – Saskatoon 1x daily 
Vancouver – Winnipeg 3x daily 
Vancouver – Fort St. John 1x daily 
Vancouver – Cranbrook 1x daily 
Vancouver – Ottawa 2x daily 
Vancouver – Montreal 6 to 13x weekly 
Vancouver – Halifax 6x weekly 
Kelowna – Victoria 12x weekly 
Calgary – Prince George 1x daily 
Calgary – Ottawa 2x daily 
Calgary – Montreal 2x daily 
Calgary – London, ON 1 to 2x daily 
Calgary – Halifax 3x daily 
Calgary – St. John’s 1x daily 
Edmonton – Comox 8x weekly 
Edmonton – Victoria 20x weekly 
Edmonton – Kelowna 7x daily 
Edmonton – Grande Prairie 13x weekly 
Edmonton – Yellowknife 1x daily 
Edmonton – Saskatoon 3x daily 
Edmonton – Regina 3x daily 
Edmonton – Winnipeg 20x weekly 
Edmonton – Ottawa 4x weekly 
Edmonton – Montreal 3x weekly 
Edmonton – Halifax 10x weekly 
Edmonton – St. John’s 4x weekly 
Winnipeg – Ottawa 1x daily 
Winnipeg – Regina 1x daily 
Winnipeg – Halifax 1x daily 
Toronto – Victoria 4x weekly 
Toronto – Regina 10x weekly 
Toronto – Saskatoon 12x weekly 
Halifax – Montreal 2x daily 

The following domestic markets will have a new seasonal start date: 

Market New start date 
Calgary – Quebec City 6-Jul-20 
Calgary – Charlottetown 5-Jul-20 
Winnipeg – Montreal 5-Jul-20 
Toronto – Kelowna 5-Jul-20 
Toronto – Sydney, NS 5-Jul-20 

WESTJET CARGO DELIVERS FLOWERS FOR MOTHER’S DAY

While we may be physically distancing, we know moms will still be feeling the love today. Over the last three weeks, WestJet Cargo has helped deliver 15 tonnes of flowers across Canada — just in time for Mother’s Day.

Canadian aviation industry won’t survive without federal help, says Calgary expert

News from CTV News – link to story and updates

Alesia Fieldberg, Video Journalist ~ Published Thursday, April 30, 2020

Credit CTV News

WATCH VIDEO: Link to CTV News

CALGARY — Travel restrictions and orders to stay home during the pandemic have seen Calgary airport traffic plummet, and an industry expert said Ottawa needs to step in.

Calgary-based aviation industry analyst Rick Erickson said Canadian airlines and airports won’t survive without financial assistance.

“I strongly believe the federal government in Canada must make some sort of program available.”

Related Stories

Calgary Airport Authority said passenger volumes are expected to drop approximately 60 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 and projects revenue losses of 40 to 50 per cent this year due to the impact of COVID-19.

Erickson said the United States and many European countries have provided funding to its aviation sectors and Canada’s industry is in dire need.

“The numbers truly are in the hundreds of millions of dollars and it looks like the federal government is the only agency that could backstop that.”

Airports hammered by COVID struggle to survive; $2B in losses predicted

News from CTV News – link to story

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press Staff ~ Published Thursday, April 30, 2020

Toronto Pearson International Airport

People carry luggage at Pearson International Airport in Toronto in this file photo dated Dec. 20, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

TORONTO — Clobbered by anti-pandemic measures that have stifled travel and grounded much of the world’s commercial aviation, Canada’s airports are predicting around $2 billion in lost revenues this year.

The isolation of would-be travellers, border closures and flight cancellations have led to a precipitous decline in demand for plane tickets and, by extension, airport services.

“Our airports have seen traffic and revenues plummet significantly — an average of about 90 per cent,” said Daniel-Robert Gooch, head of the Canadian Airports Council, which represents 100 airports. “Looking ahead to the end of the year, airports anticipate year-end revenues to be down about 55 per cent from where they would have been, even more at smaller airports.”

The bottom line, Gooch said, were anticipated losses of between $1.8 billion and $2.2 billion.

Globally, commercial air traffic shrunk 41 per cent below 2019 levels in the last two weeks of March alone, according to Flightradar24.com. Canada, too, has been hit hard.

Emergency isolation measures, including the closure of the U.S.-Canada border and stay-home directives, brought the rush of normal air traffic to a crawl. At least six regional airports, from Saint John, N.B. to Prince Rupert B.C., have lost scheduled passenger service altogether.

At Canada’s largest airport, Toronto Pearson International, plummeting passenger traffic has left normally bustling, frenetic terminals looking like gleaming ghost towns. About 5,000 passengers are moving through the facility each day, down from a normal 130,000, the airport said.

Tori Gass, with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the number of flights has dropped from an average of 1,300 per day to about 350.

“There are approximately nine passenger airlines operating at Pearson compared to 67 airlines that were operating previously,” Gass said.

Several Canadian carriers, such as Porter Airlines and Sunwing, stopped regular flights altogether. Larger carriers, such as Air Canada and WestJet, have been limping along on drastically curtailed passenger loads, waiting along with everyone else for the pandemic skies to clear. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

“We anticipate the recovery to be protracted — faster at larger hub airports than elsewhere in the system — with passenger traffic in 2020 at only about 60 per cent of 2019 levels,” Gooch said.

Canada’s airports generate about $19 billion for the country’s economy and employ 194,000 people.

The sharp traffic reduction has forced airports, normally major economic hubs in their own right, into cutting mode. Some, like Calgary and Edmonton, have partially closed terminals. The airport in Windsor, Ont., suspended all commercial flights. Other measures include cutting employee wages or hours, or outright layoffs.

On Thursday, for example, Vancouver’s airport authority, which employs about 500 people across operations, finance, engineering, human resources and other sectors, became the latest to offer staff voluntary layoffs.

Gooch said about a dozen municipal and territorial airports appeared to be ineligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which would allow others to avoid immediate layoffs. Either way, he said, airports were struggling to cover costs, with borrowing their way through the crisis only punting the problem down the road.

While freight traffic has risen, the increase has barely offset the losses.

“Cargo aircraft movements are a fraction of normal passenger aircraft movements at most airports, and cargo doesn’t pay airport improvement fees, park at the airport, shop in the stores or eat in the restaurants,” Gooch said.

The industry, Gooch said, was hoping the federal government — already a financial life-support system for millions of Canadians and businesses — will offer loan or bond guarantees along with interest-free loans repayable over a longer period.

Airports also want Ottawa to scrap ground rents to allow them to conserve cash, focus on operations, and pay off debt acquired during the pandemic. Smaller airports need funding for essential operating expenses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 30, 2020.

Calgary airport traffic takes nearly 50 per cent nosedive amid pandemic with worse to come

News from the Calgary Herald – link to story

Bill Kaufmann  •  29 April 2020

Parked WestJet planes are seen through the windows of the Calgary International airport which was almost deserted amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia

COVID-19 headwinds forced passenger traffic at Calgary International Airport to plummet by 46 per cent in March.

But a spokesman for the Calgary Airport Authority said those were high-flying days compared to April and what’s to come in the following months, with flights at nearly a standstill.

“The numbers will show an over 90 per cent decrease for April, there are many days we’re down 98 per cent,” Reid Fiest said Wednesday.

Following modest losses in January and February, the numbers took a dramatic dive in the second half of March as flights, particularly international ones, were virtually halted in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A predictable blow was the demise of direct Calgary to Beijing flights that were to resume on a seasonal basis this spring, said Fiest.

For now, the airport is forecasting a 60 per cent drop in traffic for 2020 compared with 2019, which was a record year with 18 million people streaming through the airport.

That would be a loss of 10.8 million passengers and half of the once-projected $400 million in revenues.

“It’s a bit of an eerie place right now,” Fiest said of the mostly deserted airport terminals.

The International wing of the Calgary International Airport was almost deserted amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Only a few flights from the U.S. are arriving each day. Gavin Young/Postmedia

For now, there are no plans to hike passenger fees to make up for the shortfall, he said, noting Ottawa has waived rental charges until the end of the year — an amount that would have fallen anyway since it’s tied to revenues.

“We’re assessing right now and we’ve paused discretionary spending and capital projects,” said Fiest.

“The focus is just continuing to operate the airport safely and securely, and support our airline partners as best we can.”

The airport authority reduced its workforce by a third, while executives and senior managers took pay rollbacks.

Its major airline clients have followed suit, with WestJet laying off 1,700 pilots by June 1 and temporarily reducing its staff by half, about 6,900 positions.

Air Canada laid off 16,500 employees but has said they’ll be rehired with the help of federal emergency wage subsidies.

Both carriers are still offering domestic flights, but at a significantly reduced level.

Airports across the country are forecast to lose $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion this year due to the pandemic.

Also rendered a ghost town is the airport’s dining and retail sector, with 80 per cent of operations suspended or shuttered.

“When there are passengers in the terminal, some of them are open but not for long,” said Fiest.

Chairs and tables are taped off in the food court area at the Calgary International airport which was almost deserted amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia

An airport flower shop owner said they’ve been told by the authority that a May 1 reopening of businesses is possible, but even that’s uncertain.

“It’s really a ghost town in here, you hardly see people walking in the (terminals),” said Monica Meng, owner of A Touch of Petals.

“But the airport is helping us with the fixed costs, so I think businesses here will come back when this is all over.”

Early in the pandemic, some staff of those businesses were reluctant to show up for work, afraid of being infected by airline passengers.

The authority estimates demand for taxi and rental car service has been reduced by 90 per cent.

The Calgary International Airport was almost deserted amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia

For now, there’s little on the horizon to suggest a timeline for a return to normal at the city’s air hub, said Fiest, adding an economy bludgeoned by the latest oil price crash is sure to be another albatross.

“We’re certainly looking forward to the days of more people in the terminal but that will take some time,” he said.

It’s even possible the virus-induced trend of online conferencing could persist, he said, and eat into travel volumes.

Some blue sky for the airport has been a 17 per cent increase this year in cargo volume, fuelled by COVID-19, said Fiest.

“That’s due to more online orders and personal protective equipment coming into Canada, and we expect that’ll continue,” said Fiest.

WestJet Update: 29 April – Domestic Schedule Changes to June 4

From WestJet

WESTJET MAKES FREQUENCY UPDATES TO ITS DOMESTIC FLIGHT SCHEDULE FROM MAY 5 THROUGH JUNE 4  

WestJet is making additional changes to its domestic flight schedule, from May 5 through June 4, 2020. These changes are required to address significantly reduced guest demand during the COVID-19 crisis.   

The following are frequency reductions from May 5-June 4, 2020:  

Market  Previous frequency  Updated frequency 
Calgary-Lethbridge 6x weekly 3x weekly 
Calgary-Medicine Hat 6x weekly 3x weekly 
Calgary-Cranbrook 6x weekly 3x weekly 
Winnipeg-Saskatoon 3x weekly 2x weekly 
Winnipeg-Thunder Bay 3x weekly 2x weekly 

The following city pairs have been temporarily removed from May 5-June 4, 2020:  

Market Previous frequency 
Halifax-Montreal 1x weekly 

These changes are in addition to the network updates announced on Monday, April 22, when the airline announced removing approximately 4,000 weekly flights or 600 daily flights. 

While some city pairings have been temporarily removed, we continue to serve the 38 Canadian airports to which we currently operate, ensuring that those with essential travel requirements can get where they need to be and that cargo goods like blood, medical products and food supplies can continue to flow.   

The overall demand for travel remains fluid during this ongoing pandemic and we continue to evaluate further reductions. Bookings and full schedule details are available at westjet.com. All transborder and international routes remain suspended at this time through June 4, 2020.  

REPATRIATION FLIGHTS 

In collaboration with Government of Canada, WestJet has added flights to repatriate Canadians from Costa Rica to Toronto today and on May 2, along with a flight from Belize to Toronto on May 6. Seats are available for booking on westjet.com.  

Next scheduled repatriation flights: 

  • Today, April 29, 2020 from San José, Costa Rica (SJO) to Toronto 
  • May 2, 2020 from San José, Costa Rica (SJO) to Toronto 
  • May 6, 2020 from Belize (BZE) to Toronto  

WestJet Update: 20 April – Updates Domestic Flight Schedule

From WestJet

WESTJET UPDATES DOMESTIC FLIGHT SCHEDULE FROM MAY 5 THROUGH JUNE 4  

WestJet is making changes to its domestic flight schedule, removing approximately 4,000 weekly flights or 600 daily flights from May 5 through June 4, 2020. These changes are required to address significantly reduced guest demand during the COVID-19 crisis.   

While some city pairings have been temporarily removed, we continue to serve the 38 Canadian airports to which we currently operate, ensuring that those with essential travel requirements can get where they need to be and that cargo goods like blood, medical products and food supplies can continue to flow.   

The overall demand for travel remains fluid during this ongoing pandemic and we continue to evaluate further reductions. Bookings and full schedule details are available at westjet.com. All transborder and international routes remain suspended at this time through June 4, 2020.   

For guests with travel booked after May 5 through June 4, we are proactively notifying them of their options.  

The following city pairs have been temporarily removed from May 5-June 4, 2020:  

Market  Previous frequency  
Vancouver – Nanaimo  2x daily  
Vancouver – Comox  1x daily  
Vancouver – Regina  4x weekly  
Vancouver – Saskatoon  5x weekly  
Vancouver – Winnipeg  3x daily  
Vancouver – Fort St. John  1x daily  
Vancouver – Cranbrook  1x daily  
Vancouver – Ottawa  1x daily  
Vancouver – Montreal  6x weekly  
Kelowna – Victoria  12x weekly  
Calgary – Prince George  1x daily  
Calgary – Ottawa  2x daily  
Calgary – Montreal  13x weekly  
Calgary – London, ON  1x daily  
Calgary – Halifax  17x weekly  
Edmonton – Comox  6x weekly  
Edmonton – Victoria  20x weekly  
Edmonton – Kelowna  7x daily  
Edmonton – Grande Prairie  13x weekly  
Edmonton – Yellowknife  1x daily  
Edmonton – Saskatoon  3x daily  
Edmonton – Regina  3x daily  
Edmonton – Winnipeg  20x weekly  
Edmonton – Ottawa  2x weekly  
Edmonton – Halifax  5x weekly  
Winnipeg – Ottawa  1x daily  
Winnipeg – Regina  1x daily  
Winnipeg – Halifax  1x daily  
Toronto – Victoria  4x weekly  
Toronto – Edmonton  5 to 7x daily  
Toronto – Regina  10x weekly  
Toronto – Saskatoon  12x weekly  

REPATRIATION FLIGHT SCHEDULE 

WestJet has the following international repatriation flights scheduled: 

  • April 20, 2020 from Georgetown (GEO), Guyana to Toronto (YYZ)  
    Departs 3:30 p.m. (local) arrives 9:54 p.m.  
  • April 20, 2020 from Grand Cayman (GCM) to Nassau, Bahamas (NAS) to Toronto (YYZ) 
    Departs 12:00 p.m., 3:13 p.m. (local), arrives 6:16 p.m. 
  • April 23, 2020 from Guatemala City, Guatamala (GUA) to Toronto (YYZ) 

FLEXIBLE CHANGE/CANCEL POLICY   

  • More details on our policies are available here

AFFECTED FLIGHTS – visit the blog (updated) 

How WestJet reacted quickly to virus – and faced up to tough decisions

News from FlightGlobal – link to story

By Pilar Wolfsteller, FlightGlobal.com – 17 April 2020

The Canadian carrier’s chief executive Ed Sims describes the difficult choices already made and those that lie ahead amid the coronavirus outbreak.

When WestJet chief executive Ed Sims drives past Calgary International airport to his office every morning, he sees a row of parked aircraft, grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, and wonders what fresh hell awaits.

“It’s just so unpredictable for all of us at the moment,” Sims says. “The strange thing about this environment is that we have no waypoints. It’s really difficult for people in the airline world who love that sense of predictability, and, let’s be honest, that sense of control.

“Whatever our role – pilots, engineers, chief executives – we are all having to adjust to a world without any control.”

Ed Sims WestJet
Source: The Canadian Press

Sims: the airline’s command centre quickly identified that borders would close

WestJet is Canadian aviation’s irreverent upstart, born in 1996 as a low-cost carrier in the western boomtown at the foot of the Rocky Mountains known more for its annual rodeo – the Calgary Stampede – than its ability to sustain a multibillion-dollar international airline.

In the almost quarter-century of its existence, and through many an economic crunch and strategic misstep, the airline has survived, learned, thrived and built up a devoted customer base that is giving legacy carrier Air Canada, 60 years its senior, a real run for its money.

WestJet’s management team started planning for a catastrophic event related to the coronavirus long before it actually became one. In the first week of March, when the virus still seemed a very distant threat, Canada’s second-largest and fastest-growing airline set up an incident command centre, with experts and managers from every corner of the company.

They were tasked to anticipate what operations would look like not if, but when, the spread of the virus brought the airline and the entire industry to its knees. Since then the command centre has met every morning at 09:00 local time for a situation report.

BACK TO BASE

From day one, the participants knew it would be a bloodbath.

“We grounded all our international fleet four days before Canada announced border closures. What that gave us was time. We completely rescheduled all of our network to bring aircraft back to base in the space of 72h without having to do it 6h before the borders were closing around us.”

It was a massive logistical undertaking for his operations team to find parking space for 120 aircraft, or two thirds of WestJet’s fleet, which brought the airline to the size it was in 2003, in just a few days.

The team secured space in Calgary for about half of those airliners, as well as parking spots in Edmonton, Toronto and Kelowna.

“The first lesson for me was, you know this is difficult. You face it, and you get to it early, before somebody takes the options away,” Sims says. “When I knew we were parking two thirds of the fleet, I knew I was going to have to essentially lay off at least half of our people.”

On 16 March the airline said it would begin suspending international flights and reducing domestic operations by 50% later that week. On 24 March, the company dismissed 6,900 employees, and on 17 April WestJet said it is laying off another 1,700 pilots.

“When I briefed our management team about the horrible reality of having to lay off 6,900 staff, I asked them to focus on all the jobs they were saving, the 7,000 that we were retaining in the organisation, and how important every single one of those jobs were. And if you can just focus on what you’re retaining, rather than the reality of what you’re losing, then you don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that you’re being asked to undertake.”

Parked WestJet aircraft
Source: WestJet

Around half of WestJet’s grounded fleet is parked at Calgary

About 500 employees chose early retirement, and the rest are expected to return to the airline in some capacity when this crisis is over.

Sims says WestJet will partake in the “Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy” programme, in which the government has made C$71 billion ($50.6 billion) available to companies that have seen revenue decline by at least 30% due to the coronavirus crisis. The programme reimburses up to 75% of employees’ salaries, to a maximum of C$847 weekly, according to the government’s website.

“We will be looking to participate in the government scheme and to bring those people back onto the payroll, although not back into work, because frankly, there just isn’t the passenger demand and there isn’t enough work for them,” Sims says. “The ability to bring those people back in, albeit on a lower salary level than some of them would have been used to prior, is at least helping people make ends meet, which in the current environment is probably as much as you can do.”

The airline also said in March that its executive team members and directors had taken pay cuts, it released most of its contractors, instituted a hiring freeze, stopped non-essential travel and paused many capital projects – all in the name of preserving cash.

CONTINUING OPERATIONS

WestJet is currently operating between 100 and 180 domestic and repatriation flights per day, while keeping close tabs on load factors. The target is 50%.

“We’ve been cancelling two to three days out, to try to make sure that we don’t fly planes with just one or two people on board. This concept of “ghost flying” is anathema to me, because I’m also still trying to keep one eye on environmental damage.”

But the term “load factor” doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s currently distorted, he says, due to the social distancing measures the airline has introduced, including not selling middle seats on the larger aircraft, and staggering occupied seats in the Dash 8-400 turboprops, to ensure that passengers who do fly have enough personal space to stay safe.

Like some of its peers, WestJet has also pivoted to carrying more cargo, and has been repatriating Canadians stranded overseas as a result of the international health crisis. Aircraft are flying to destinations which the airline does not usually serve with regularly scheduled flights, including Panama, Trinidad and Havana, among others, to pick up Canada’s citizens.

“We’re carrying enormous amounts of essential medical supplies, both inbound on some of our repatriation flights but also across Canada, particularly to communities that would otherwise be really struggling with a shortfall in road traffic,” Sims says.

MAX CONUNDRUM

With all of these planes sitting idle, Sims is wondering what the future will look like, and how long it will take the industry to return. WestJet’s 13 Boeing 737 Max jets have been grounded for more than a year now, and the airline is considering what to do with the 44 more it has on order.

“In previous conversations, I’ve said we’re committed to the forward order,” Sims says. “But now we have to look at a very different reality where, if I take 9/11 as a parallel – it took three years for North American traffic levels to recover, from September 2001 to September 2004. This has been like a sequence of disasters of that magnitude on the aviation industry week after week and I think it is a reasonable assumption to say it’ll take even longer for traffic levels to recover.

“Max customers have to look at their forward order and say, is that still going to be appropriate? I can’t answer that right now, other than it’s causing me to do a lot of soul searching. How much capacity is actually going to be viable?”

WestJet 737 Max
Source: Shutterstock

WestJet’s 13 737 Max jets have been grounded for more than a year

Viability of the Max orders aside, Sims says he is optimistic that the airline and its loyal band of “WestJetters” will successfully navigate the crisis, no matter how long it takes. Three strategic elements inspire this confidence, and the result could serve as a crisis management case study for business administration students of the future.

First, he says, secure the element of time – make difficult decisions before they are made for you. Second, set a rhythm to follow rigorously, “like a metronome”.

But most importantly, bring in the professionals – he calls them “warriors” – who are able to manoeuvre through something that none of them has ever experienced before.

“I always recruited people with battle scars, but who are still smiling. And that sense of resilience has been so critical in the way that we manage this,” he says.

“Through that we retain an ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re laying off. We put ourselves in the shoes of guests who are stranded in Panama, or in San Salvador. And we then reflect that we have to fight to do whatever we can to help those people.”

Coronavirus: More infected passengers reported on flights involving B.C. airports

News provided by Global News – link to story and updates

BY SHELBY THOM GLOBAL NEWS ~ Posted April 5, 2020

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Speaking from outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the federal government has now formalized its updated rules for domestic travel across Canada. Anyone showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus will now be banned from boarding domestic flights and intercity passenger trains, the prime minister announced at a press conference March 28.

The BC Centre for Disease Control has added three more international flights and five domestic flights in the past week to its list of COVID-19 in-flight exposures involving passengers who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. 

The new international flights with a COVID-19 case on board include:

  • March 11 – Air Canada 37 Vancouver to Melbourne, rows n/a
  • March 17 – Delta (unknown flight number) Seattle to Vancouver, rows n/a
  • March 21 – Air Canada 855 London to Vancouver, rows n/a

The new domestic flights with a COVID-19 case on board include:

  • March 10 – Air Canada 102 Vancouver to Toronto, rows n/a
  • March 10 – Air Canada 416 Toronto to Montreal, rows n/a
  • March 15 – WestJet 3103 Calgary to Nanaimo, rows n/a
  • March 21 – Air Canada 8420 Vancouver to Kelowna, rows n/a
  • March 24 – Air Canada 8245 Terrace to Vancouver, rows n/a

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The BCCDC says as of March 27, B.C. no longer directly contacts passengers from domestic flights who were seated near a confirmed case during the flight.

Passengers in the affected seats may have been exposed to COVID-19 and should self-isolate and monitor for symptoms for 14 days following the flight.

Other passengers are not required to self-isolate but should self-monitor for onset of symptoms for 14 days after the flight.Coronavirus outbreak: Passengers on virus-stricken cruise ships board chartered flights home

For flights with affected seats not specified, the BCCDC recommends that flight passengers self-isolate and monitor for symptoms for 14 days following the flight.

There are now 17 international flights taking off or landing at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in which a passenger tested positive for the novel coronavirus after arrival.

There are also 18 domestic flights involving Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo, Terrace and Prince George airports where a passenger later tested positive for the disease.

As of March 25, it is mandatory under the Quarantine Act that anyone arriving in B.C. from outside of Canada is required to stay home for 14 days upon their arrival.Canadians stuck in Nepal look to federal government for help getting home

Returning travellers that develop respiratory symptoms are also required to self-isolate for a period of 10 days after the onset of symptoms.

For a full list of affected international and domestic flights, click here. 

For advice on self-isolation and self-monitoring, click here. 

If you believe you have COVID-19 symptoms, you’re asked to do a self-assessment.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.