Air travel is about to go through its biggest transformation since 9/11 — and passengers will pay for it

News from the Vancouver Sun – link to story and videos

Gabriel Friedman | Publishing date:Jun 26, 2020 

All airlines have implemented temperature checks, health screening questions and enhanced cleaning. Seat distancing, or leaving the middle seat unoccupied on larger planes, and only booking every other seat on smaller planes, has also become de rigeur. REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR

Nearly two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks transformed airports, leading to security barriers where none had existed before, the coronavirus pandemic is once again upending air travel.

This time around, the focus is on health measures, and the use of technology that in theory could make the experience “touchless” and more automated, but could also lead to higher ticket prices.

Air travel is about to go through its biggest transformation since 9/11 — and passengers will pay for it

“We need faster, cleaner, better ways to get through the airport,” Robyn McVicker, vice president of operations and maintenance at Vancouver Airport Authority told the Financial Post. “It’s something that we believe is the future.”

Already, Vancouver airport and others are doubling down on touchless technology that allows passengers to print a baggage ticket and drop their bags off at a self-serve kiosk that eliminates the need to touch or interact with anyone at the airport.

She said her team is already working on a project called “Phoenix” that reimagines “every single process in the airport” using technology, whether that means waiting in line, waiting at the gate and even the need for paper tickets. In the future, McVicker thinks airports will begin using biometric facial scans, so that passengers can glide through the airport in less time, with less waiting.

“The industry has never been more aligned on how do we make things better than it is today,” said McVicker.

There is much at stake in figuring out how to bring air travel back. Airports across the country are already facing sharp declines in revenue. Even with widespread layoffs, some airports are looking to raise money by increasing the fees that passengers pay, or borrowing, just to support the costs of their overhead.

An empty check-in counter at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. REUTERS/CARLOS OSORIO

Nathan Janzen, a senior economist with the Royal Bank of Canada, said that aspects of the economy “that require people to congregate” will be the slowest to recover.

But he said airports form a crucial backbone to the economy, allowing people to travel to a region, facilitating investment in businesses and allowing a freer flow of goods.

“Those are the kinds of things that can be a structural impediment to a longer term to medium term recovery, if you don’t figure out a way to make them work,” Janzen said.

The drop in air travel has been dramatic. One day in mid-June, about 5,000 people arrived or departed on a flight out of the Vancouver International Airport — about 97 per cent less than the 75,000 people that would normally service the airport.

Across the country, other airports, big and small, are experiencing similar situations. In Calgary, for example, about 1,000 passengers were travelling on a day when normally there would be 24,500 passengers.

Toronto’s Pearson Airport reported a 97 per cent drop in passenger traffic in April.

At Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport, around 350 people travelled through compared to nearly 13,000 on average at this time in prior years.

“But that’s really good news,” said Barry Rempel, president and chief executive of Winnipeg Airports Authority, “because we had days, for example, the 6th of May, we had fewer than a hundred people boarding.”

Rempel is hopeful that as federal and provincial authorities relax social distancing guidelines, air travel will slowly pick up again, but he knows that regional airports such as the one in Winnipeg will likely trail airports that have a more international flight list.

In any case, no one is under any illusion that air travel will snap back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

In March, the country’s airlines gradually suspended most or in some cases all of their flights as federal and provincial health authorities issued new rules to contain the spread of COVID-19, in a move that corresponded with tens of thousands of layoffs.

Toronto-based Porter Airlines stopped flying altogether and still has no plans to resume flights until July 29 at the earliest.

Montreal-based Air Transat has said it plans to resume flying on July 23 after a four-month hiatus.

Calgary-based Westjet has said it is only flying five per cent of its schedule, and is not releasing a schedule beyond Aug. 5.

Montreal-based Air Canada has reduced its flight schedule by 85 to 90 per cent. A The company says it’s hopeful that it will see a recovery, which would mean that its flight schedule would only be reduced by 75 per cent.

All airlines have implemented temperature checks, health screening questions and enhanced cleaning. Seat distancing, or leaving the middle seat unoccupied on larger planes, and only booking every other seat on smaller planes, has also become de rigeur.

Transport Canada also requires all passengers at least two years old to bring their own face mask and wear it throughout the duration of the flight.

Despite these measures, people aren’t travelling.

“The airport’s not a comfortable place these days,” said Rempel. “It’s a welcoming building, but it’s empty.”

Alberta Health Services staff meet airline passengers entering the International arrivals area at the Calgary International Airport where they are directed to a new COVID-19 screening area. JIM WELLS/POSTMEDIA

To coax people back into airports, he said staff are taking extra precautions — hand sanitizer stations have been added throughout the building and the staff to passenger ratio is high enough that every single screen can be immediately cleaned after it’s used.

They have even installed a new technology that cleans the escalator handrail on a constant basis.

“Think of it as a bath that the handrail goes through every time it makes a circuit,” said Rempel. “That’s the kind of thing we’re doing.”

Still, Rempel said his revenues are currently about three per cent of normal. While the Winnipeg Airport Authority slashed capital spending plans from $175 million to $7 million, Rempel has also applied to raise the airportimprovement fee’ that every passenger pays as part of their ticket fare, from $25 to $38.

“If traffic comes back next year — it won’t, I believe — then we’ll be reducing that,” he said, adding that otherwise the increase should help sustain the airport through  2024 or 2025, by which time he expects air travel to resume to normal levels.

While the federal government has waived the lease payments that airports pay until December — which typically amount to between 11-12 per cent of total revenues,  according to several airport executives interviewed for this article — Rempel said it will not be enough to save his airport.

Reid Fiest, a spokesman for Calgary Airports Authority, said his company is hoping the federal waiver is extended for four or five years so airports can manage their debt.

“We’re doing a lot to try and make people feel comfortable and that it’s safe to travel,” said Fiest, adding he expects it could take three to five years, “but there is still a lot of uncertainty.”

The simple reality is no one knows when air travel will return.

“It’s the billion-dollar question,” said McVicker. “The reality is forecasting is a voodoo science right now.”

Air Canada racks up more refund complaints than any foreign airline in U.S.

News from City News 1130 – link to story

BY THE CANADIAN PRESS | Posted Jun 29, 2020

An Air Canada ticketing station is shown at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Air Canada has more customer complaints about refunds to the U.S. Department of Transportation than any foreign airline. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Air Canada has more customer complaints about refunds to the U.S. Department of Transportation than any foreign airline.

The department says Air Canada racked up 969 refund complaints out of about 7,500 in April, outpacing more than 80 non-U.S. carriers in the category.

The Montreal-based airline has the third-most refund complaints of any carrier, after United Airlines and American Airlines.

Air Canada and other Canadian airlines have refused to reimburse most customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S., like the European Union, requires airlines to refund passengers, meaning a complaint to the U.S. transportation department offers a potential path to reimbursement for some Air Canada customers who have been turned down north of the border.

Despite the high complaint numbers, Air Canada carries fewer passengers on flights with a U.S. segment than British Air and Lufthansa as well as four U.S. airlines.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. ranks right below Air Canada in cross-border passenger numbers but garnered the 10th-most refund complaints at 217, tying with Air France. WestJet has said customers on U.S. or U.K. flights are entitled to refunds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

The Canadian Press

Air Canada, WestJet to drop on-board physical distancing policies

From City News 1130 – link to story

BY CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS, THE CANADIAN PRESS | Posted Jun 26, 2020

FILE – An Air Canada flight departing for Kelowna takes off at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckSUMMARY

  • Air Canada, WestJet have blocked the sale of adjacent seats in economy class to help stop spread of COVID-19
  • Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the ‘key points’ in preventing the spread of the virus as part of a
  • Canadians are beginning to brave air travel again as confinement measures lift

MONTREAL — The country’s two largest airlines are ending their on-board seat distancing policies starting on Canada Day, raising health concerns amid a pandemic that has devastated the travel industry.

Air Canada has blocked the sale of adjacent seats in economy class, and WestJet has done the same throughout the entire plane, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The carriers said Friday they will revert to health recommendations from the United Nation’s aviation agency and the International International Air Transport Association (IATA) trade group.

American Airlines also announced Friday that it will start booking flights to full capacity starting next Wednesday.

IATA called last month for an end to in-flight physical distancing rules, proposing a range of measures including some that run counter to federal government policies.

Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the “key points” in preventing the spread of the virus as part of a guide issued to the aviation industry in April.

“Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing,” the document states.

‘Highlighted risks’

Some health experts have highlighted the risks of spreading COVID in crowded airports and packed cabins.

“Once it’s in the cabin, it’s difficult to stop air moving around,” said Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health.

However Joseph Allen, director of the Harvard public health school’s Healthy Buildings program, said the HEPA air filters used on most planes effectively control airborne bacteria and viruses.

In line with federal directives, Air Canada and WestJet conduct pre-boarding temperature checks and require masks on board. They have also implemented enhanced aircraft cleaning and scaled back their in-flight service in late March, cutting out hot drinks, hot meals, and fresh food.

“The new measures will continue to build on the recommendations of ICAO [the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization] and others that a multi-layered strategy to COVID-19 safety is most effective,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

‘Normal online booking’

WestJet said its online booking will return to normal on Wednesday.

“Moving forward, our cabin crew are able to assist should there be space to accommodate and we encourage guests to discuss seating arrangements with them once onboard,” said spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

Canadians are beginning to brave air travel again as confinement measures lift, though Manitoba and the Maritimes still have strong restrictions on interprovincial travel in place while other provinces discourage it.

Swoop, a budget airline owned by WestJet, added eight weekly flights in June with 12 more coming in July after the carrier cut capacity to a single line of flight per day _ Halifax-Hamilton-Edmonton-Abbotsford and back.

“We’re in this minus 95 per cent mode right now,” Swoop president Charles Duncan said in an interview. “It doesn’t get much worse than this.”

Hope is on the horizon, however.

“At the height of it, it was common to have under 20 people on a plane. But from Vancouver just now I brought in 65. Earlier in the day from Edmonton to Vancouver we had over 100,” said WestJet flight attendant Chris Rauenbusch, president of CUPE Local 4070.

WestJet to end physical distancing policy as domestic air travel picks up

News from City News – Link to story

BY THE CANADIAN PRESS | POSTED JUN 26, 2020

A pilot taxis a Westjet Boeing 737-700 plane to a gate after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on February 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

WestJet Airlines Ltd. says it will end its seat distancing policy on board its aircraft starting July 1.

The carrier has blocked the purchase of middle seats and adjacent seats for the past few months to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With domestic air travel starting to nudge higher, WestJet says it will revert to health recommendations from the International Air Transport Association.

The trade group called last month for an end to in-flight physical distancing rules, proposing a range of measures including some that run counter to federal government policies.

Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the “key points” in preventing the spread of the virus as part of a guide issued to the aviation industry in April.

In line with federal directives, WestJet conducts pre-boarding temperature checks and enhanced aircraft cleaning, requires masks on board and has scaled back its in-flight service.

279 N.B. call centre, airport staff among WestJet layoffs

News from CBC News – link to story

Company announced Wednesday it had permanently laid off 3,333 employees

CBC News · Posted: Jun 25, 2020

WestJet announced Wednesday it was permanently laying off 3,333 workers, 279 of which are based in New Brunswick. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

More than 270 WestJet employees in New Brunswick were let go as part of the mass layoffs the Canadian airliner announced Wednesday.

The company announced it laid off 3,333 employees permanently, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions as the reason for the cuts. 

Of the 279 affected New Brunswick workers, 253 are in Moncton, where the company shut down its call centre.

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet confirmed that all of its call centres will be consolidated in the company’s home in Calgary. Other centres in Halifax and Vancouver are now closed, too. 

Fifteen WestJet employees at the Greater Moncton Roméo LeBlanc International Airport and 11 staff at the Fredericton International Airport have also lost their jobs.

However, the closures have not impacted WestJet flights at either airport.

In a video issued by WestJet on Wednesday, CEO Ed Sims said all domestic airport operations will be contracted out, except Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto. 

“We will seek to find a suitable partner who can provide high airport service levels through their commitment to hire as many of our affected WestJetters as possible,” Sims said in the video.

The company had 14,000 staff before pandemic border closures and travel restrictions grounded two-thirds of its fleet. Only 4,500 employees are currently on the payroll, and the company says it’s looking to bring back 5,500 employees temporarily laid off.

Year-over-year international passenger numbers have plummeted to a fraction of pre-pandemic travel, leading airlines to lay off thousands of employees.

With files from Gary Moore

Unifor condemns WestJet outsourcing scheme

From Unifor

CALGARY, AB, June 25, 2020 /CNW/ – Unifor is disturbed by WestJet’s plans that will eliminate more than 3,000 jobs in an outsourcing scheme revealed earlier this week. 

“It is disgraceful and downright un-Canadian that WestJet would punish the workers who made this historic Western Canadian start-up so successful. This is pandemic capitalism at its worst,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President. “I find it disturbing that WestJet is using the pandemic to justify its outsourcing scheme as so many of the workers who will lose their jobs were in the process of signing union cards with Unifor.” 

WestJet’s plans were announced by its parent company, Onex Corporation, one of the largest private equity firms in Canada. At the time Onex acquired WestJet in 2019, Unifor warned workers and the public of its reputation as a predatory takeover specialist with a long history of devastating cost-cutting and restructuring.

“Up until the time Onex’s takeover, WestJet employees were considered owners,” said Kellie Scanlan, Unifor’s Director of Organizing. “But after this week’s announcement, it’s clear that at WestJet, management does not want workers to have a voice.”

Unifor has a proven record of securing collective bargaining language that specifically protects airline workers from outsourcing schemes. While Unifor has been working hard to organize workers at WestJet it has faced an aggressive management-led campaign to undermine card signing efforts. In recent weeks, Unifor organizers have noted a substantial increase in the number of WestJet workers reaching out to sign union cards.

“This outsourcing scheme at WestJet shows what happens when workers do not have a union to protect them,” added Dias. “We will continue to fight for frontline WestJet workers and stand with them during this difficult time.”

Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing 315,000 workers in every major area of the economy. The union advocates for all working people and their rights, fights for equality and social justice in Canada and abroad, and strives to create progressive change for a better future.

WestJet announces organizational changes to secure its future

From WestJet, an Alberta Partnership

CALGARY, AB, June 24, 2020 /CNW/ – Today, WestJet announced organizational changes that will see the company consolidate call centre activity in Alberta, contract out airport operations in all domestic airports outside of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, and strategically restructure its office and management staff. The moves are aimed at streamlining WestJet for a competitive future following the COVID-19 crisis.

For a video message from WestJet President and CEO, Ed Sims

“Throughout the course of the biggest crisis in the history of aviation, WestJet has made many difficult, but essential, decisions to future-proof our business,” said Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO. “Today’s announcement regarding these strategic but unavoidable changes will allow us to provide security to our remaining 10,000 WestJetters, and to carry on the work of transforming our business. WestJet will once again serve the needs of Canadian travellers with low fares and award-winning service levels tomorrow and years from now.” 

Overall, 3,333 employees across the country will be affected. As WestJet works to select new airport service partners, the airline will seek out preferential employment opportunities for as many of the airport roles as possible.

The COVID-19 crisis hit WestJet and the global aviation industry with devastating force. Since the beginning of March, guest traffic has dropped in response to virus fears and travel advisories that halted almost all but essential travel. To mitigate the impact on its workforce, WestJet implemented immediate cost-cutting measures including releasing a majority of outside contractors, instituting a hiring freeze, stopping all non-essential travel and training, suspending any internal role movements and salary adjustments, cutting executive, vice-president and director salaries and pausing more than 75 per cent of its capital projects. 

WestJet has continued to operate service to all 38 year-round domestic airports during the pandemic to ensure essential lifelines for travel and cargo remained open but overall, the airline’s scheduled operations have been reduced by more than 90 per cent year over year.

Four-point COVID-19 recovery plan identified for Edmonton International Airport

News from Global News – link to story and video

By Scott Johnston 630CHED, Posted June 24, 2020

WATCH ABOVE: (May 31, 2020): One of the biggest cargo planes in the world made a stop at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) Saturday afternoon. For the first time, three Antonov AN-124 aircraft arrived at EIA within 24 hours.

It’ll likely be three years before Edmonton International Airport fully recovers economically from COVID-19. CEO Tom Ruth recently met with city council’s COVID recovery task force, and laid out a four-point plan to get things back to normal.

A motion to have Mayor Don Iveson write the provincial and federal governments to assist with the recovery will be up for debate in early July after it was introduced this week.

EIA is asking that the province put its debt for capital projects on hold for 18 months, that the federal government waive fees for three years, that overseas flights resume as soon as possible and that promotional work resume to assist the local hospitality industry.

Ruth told Global News the recovery at the airport has turned the corner. Passenger traffic was down 95 per cent in May from normal levels. It’s now down 90 per cent.

To help cover, they’ve reduced capital spending from what was supposed to be $100 million, down to $20 million. The operations budget was cut by $50 million and that included layoffs of 40 per cent of staff.

The airport is responsible, Ruth said, for 29,000 direct and indirect jobs in Metro Edmonton, with a $3.2-billion economic impact in normal times.

“So differing the loans, maybe for 18 months or so, which will be a big, big help for the recovery,” he said. “We want to make sure we have financial strength that when things recover, we’ll be able to do a lot of the capital projects that we need to do to create jobs and will help our airport grow.”Watch: WestJet adding more flights in July, but where are Albertans permitted to travel?

The rental fee the feds charge is something Ruth said all airports are hoping can be dropped for the foreseeable future.Z

“That was waived this year and all of the airports in Canada would like to see the federal government wave that for three years ahead. In our case, under a normal year, that’s a $20-million payment to the federal government.”

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau limited international travel to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver airports. It was a restriction that was supposed to end June 30.

“That restriction is still in place,” Ruth said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be ending June 30. It’s a real issue for us. We’re the fifth-largest airport in Canada. We have international carriers that would love to fly back into Edmonton and we think it’s important to work with Transport Canada and other authorities federally to get that restriction lifted.”

He said airlines like KLM, Condor, Iceland Air and WestJet — with its summer London service — are wanting to resume service.

The one silver lining in EIA’s business is on the cargo side of things. Ruth credits “blessings” in geography and infrastructure as helping Edmonton’s business case.

He’s pointing to the deep sea port in Prince Rupert that allows ships to cut their travel time from Asia by a day-and-a-half. Edmonton by rail is the closest major city, so EIA has been able to build the warehouse infrastructure to transfer cargo to its next destination, either by air or by truck, as the QEII Highway has access all the way into Mexico.

Cargo handling is up 58 per cent, and Ruth said Edmonton is gaining prominence as the largest cargo handling airport in Canada.

Ruth is optimistic that slowly things are rebounding in the recovery phase.

“We’re seeing a lot of flights being loaded in our system from the major carriers, particularly Air Canada and WestJet in our July schedule. So that is encouraging that those flights are being loaded in. This is going to be along recovery but if it’s a steady recovery, we’ll be able to help during the entire process.”

The final portion of Iveson’s motion for the July 6 council meeting calls for “shovel-ready projects” so EIA can expand its air cargo facilities, and have the province work on expansion of the interchange at 65 Avenue SW.

In October, EIA penned a deal to work with Drone Delivery Canada to create the first “airport drone delivery hub” using Edmonton airspace to build flight routes.

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

WestJet retreats on labour code exemption that would facilitate mass layoffs

News from CBC News – link to story

WestJet has laid off 9,000 of its 14,000 workers since the pandemic hit

The Canadian Press · Posted: Jun 23, 2020

WestJet has revoked its request for exemption from Canada Labour Code provisions that require 16 weeks’ notice ahead of a mass layoff. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

WestJet Airlines Ltd. says it has halted its push for a labour code exemption that would have facilitated mass layoffs.

WestJet aviation security manager Jared Mikoch-Gerke told the House of Commons health committee Monday the airline had revoked its request for exemption from Canada Labour Code provisions that require 16 weeks’ notice ahead of a mass layoff, which refers to 50 workers or more.

The executive said WestJet has laid off some 9,000 of its 14,000 employees since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The crisis has seen the Calgary-based company park two-thirds of its fleet after border shutdowns and tanking travel demand prompted it to suspend most routes — including all international trips — in late March, though it plans to resume several flights between Canada and the U.S. at the end of the month.

An Air Canada senior executive said Monday the carrier has not withdrawn its application to the federal labour minister for an exemption, but has received no response so far.

The Montreal-based airline, which has laid off more than 20,000 staff, has joined with other companies from across industries in asking the prime minister and premiers to ease restrictions on international and interprovincial travel.

‘We can’t wait years’: Airlines tell MPs they want COVID-19 rules eased so their business can restart

News from the Vancouver Sun – link to story

Ryan Tumilty   •  23 June 2020

While they are calling on the government to ease restrictions, he said they still expect it will be a long way before things return to normal. JACK BOLAND/POSTMEDIA/FILE

OTTAWA – Canada’s airlines want the government to ease travel restrictions, border closures and mandatory quarantines so their businesses can take off again.

Representatives from Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat all testified at a House of Commons health committee, with a unified message that it’s time for Canada to gradually open up to the world.

Ferio Pugliese, a senior vice president of government relations for Air Canada, told MPs that other countries are moving to reopen quicker.

“Canada needs to move at a better pace than it has thus far,” he said. “Canada we believe now needs to work urgently with stakeholder to reopen its borders.”

Pugliese said Air Canada has cut hundreds of flights and thousands of jobs and is working at five per cent of its usual capacity. He said, long-term, airlines still have fixed costs and they will become more and more unmanageable if planes stay grounded.

“As long as these restrictions stay in place and we are not looking at balanced ways of reopening the economy, it will have a tremendous impact on the financial viability of these businesses.”

Currently, with a few exceptions, only Canadian citizens and permanent residents are allowed to enter the country. Canadians returning from overseas have to quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival and some provinces are even requiring quarantines for people arriving from other parts of Canada.

Government relations director Howard Liebman, with Air Transat, said his company can’t wait until the virus goes away.

“We can’t wait years until there is a widely available vaccine to get back in the air.”

He said the company has tentative plans to open up this summer, but they know the flying public won’t be returning in waves.

Liebman said Transat, as a leisure operator, has been completely grounded since the pandemic began and is feeling the strain.

“We have not operated or sold tickets in more than three months,” he said. “There is no business or industry that can go for three months without revenue or operations.”

Commercial aviation is an essential service

Jared Mikoch-Gerke, WestJet’s manager of aviation security, said the Calgary-based airline had grounded two-thirds of its fleet and cut thousands of jobs.

While they are calling on the government to ease restrictions, he said they still expect it will be a long way before things return to normal.

“We don’t anticipate returning to pre-COVID levels until 2022,” he told the committee.

All of the panelists said Canada should move gradually, opening up to specific countries with low levels of COVID-19 transmission, safe corridors that would prevent a wider outbreak.

“These would be routes between international locations that have done a good job,” said Mikoch-Gerke.

The airlines said they are using multiple safety measures, including enhanced cleaning, requiring masks and screening at airports, but said the commercial aviation businesses needs to resume for the Canadian economy to take off.

“Commercial aviation is an essential service and an element of critical infrastructure,” said Mikoch-Gerke.

We are in the safety business

Before the committee met Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about easing restrictions to help the tourism industry. He said he feels for the industry, but Canada can’t take any chances.

“We know that reopening too quickly or carelessly would lead us to a resurgence that might well force us to go back into lockdown, to shut down the economy once again and nobody wants that.”

He said the government had offered financial support for businesses specifically so they wouldn’t have to take unnecessary risks.

“We have significant supports out for industries, for businesses large and small and for Canadians to be able to make it through the coming months, but we are going to be very, very careful about when and how we start reopening international borders.”

Several MPs were also skeptical of allowing airlines to reopen or removing the current restrictions

With cases rising in many parts of the world, NDP MP Don Davies asked the airlines if they were worried opening the borders could be a terrible decision.

“We might be walking into a second wave,” he said.

“Are you not concerned we may be walking into another flare-up,” he asked the airlines.

All of the airlines admitted reopening the borders comes with some risk, but they said they are confident it can be done safely.

“We are in the safety business and we are in the risk management business, that’s what we do,” said Pugliese.

Several MPs also grilled the airlines about refunds for passengers. Most airlines have offered travel credits or vouchers for the thousands of cancelled flights that resulted from COVID-19.

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux said it is unfair to consumers.

“It’s unfathomable to me that if someone paid for a service, but didn’t receive that service that they would still be charged for that service.”

Pugliese said Air Canada had refunded almost $1 billion in flights for customers who bought tickets that included the option of a cash refund.

He said the current rules don’t require cash refunds in cases like this and they have extended the travel vouchers they are offering so they won’t expire as quickly. More than 30,000 Canadians have signed a petition, submitted to the House of Commons requiring cash refunds for cancelled flights.

Mikoch-Gerke with WestJet said the current rules allow airlines to offer credits when the cause for a cancellation is out of their control.

“We do believe that refunding and reimbursing with travel credits is an appropriate response in exceptional circumstances.”