Canada’s smaller airlines are asking Ottawa for “immediate government financial support” as the industry deals with a downturn like no other.
“A government financial assistance is urgently needed to avert a crisis in the aviation industry that will severely impact our member carriers, the travelling public and the Canadian economy, both in the short and long term,” the Air Transport Association of Canada wrote Monday in an open letter to the Prime Minister.
“It is a crisis situation,” said ATAC President and Chief Executive Officer John McKenna in an interview. “We had a board call on Friday and that was our consensus, that some air carriers won’t survive, in Canada even.”
ATAC represents a wide variety of members, from large charter carrier Sunwing, to ultra low-cost carrier Flair, to Keewatin Air, which provides 24-hour air ambulance services in the Arctic. Airlines across the country are hurting, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of people and vital access to small and remote communities spread far and wide.
“It’s a lifeline,” said McKenna. “I mean Air Canada flies, with Jazz, to maybe 50 airports around the country. There are hundreds of airports in Canada. They’re served by our members.”
Sunwing announced Monday it would stop flying people south until April 9 and instead focus on getting Canadians home. The airline estimates it has 100,000 Canadians staying at sun resorts.
The evacuation started this morning with four departures from Toronto and Montreal to evacuate 500 people in Honduras, Aruba, Panama, and St. Maarten before those countries could close their borders.
“The health and well-being of our customers and our employees is our highest priority and we are working around the clock to keep them safe,” said Stephen Hunter, President and CEO, Sunwing Travel Group. “It’s important that we do our part to contain the spread of COVID-19, while assuring our customers and their families that we are fully committed to bring each and every one of them home to Canada.”
Canadians and permanent residents who do not show signs of Covid-19 infection are allowed to re-enter the country, despite a ban on most non-citizens announced by Ottawa Monday.
McKenna said tour operators have seen their outbound bookings crater, with cancellation rates approaching 100%.
McKenna couldn’t specify what financial assistance would look like at this point, but he said when the air system was shut down after 9/11, the government stepped in and funded airlines as though they were flying full loads for three days.
“We’re not expecting for that to happen, but we’re expecting them to consult with us and say ‘how can we help you make this happen?’,” said McKenna. “I know Air Canada and Westjet have already met with the Prime Minister to talk about helping them through this. We don’t know what came of that.”
A similar conversation has not happened with ATAC members, though McKenna expects any aid to be spread across the industry.
As they grapple with the fallout of the pandemic, McKenna said operators are also having to adjust to new regulations and work rules. The result, for many, could be overwhelming.
“Give us a chance here,” he implored. “Give us a chance to get through this.”