Safety

How can Canada open its borders safely?

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Few are pushing for it to happen tomorrow, but eventually, Canada will have to reopen its border with the United States

An Alaska Embraer 175 departs Vancouver International Airport in February 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

If and when Canada once again opens its borders to the world, how will that look? A coalition of businesses from both sides of the border wants the Canadian government to at least begin exploring the question of how to open borders safely as the pandemic rages.

It’s no secret international travel has taken a beating during the global pandemic. Governments have closed their borders to all but the most essential travellers and airlines have cancelled countless flights. And government policies haven’t helped, according to industry groups who rely on travel.

“Sudden and unilateral shifts in government response, such as imposition of quarantines or border closures, take a heavy toll on the travel industry, further impeding economic recovery and causing chaos for travellers,” said Dave Hilfman. He’s the new Executive Director of Global Business Travel Association, based in Washington. While he was criticizing European Union policies, the same can be said for Canada.

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From Open Skies to empty skies

To understand just how bad it situation has become, it’s good to understand a bit of history.

In February this year, the 25th anniversary of the Open Skies treaty between Canada and the United States passed with little fanfare. The treaty led to greater competition, allowing carriers to fly between any two cities across the border.

Passenger numbers boomed. An analysis by Western Aviation News showed traffic more than doubled, climbing from 13 million in 1994 to more than 26 million in 2018. Underlying all that growth was a more subtle shift. A market that had been dominated by U.S. carriers at the outset would soon shift to Canadian carriers. By February, Air Canada flew 105 cross-border routes while rival Westjet flew 61. The American carriers fell far behind.

Billowing in the background of that rosy picture were the ominous clouds of the coronavirus that would ravage the industry less than a month later. Within a month, Canada closed its borders ton non-essential travel.

As we reach August, cross-border travel is showing few signs of recovery. While it is still legal to fly into the United States on holiday, the pandemic is raging in many areas, making them undesirable destinations. Pleasure travel into Canada is generally forbidden, and anyone entering the country must quarantine for two weeks. As a result, in August there will be 80% fewer routes across the border than before the pandemic.

You can’t get there from here

An analysis of airline routes show airlines have retrenched to their most basic services with hub-to-hub service the priority.

Eleven Canadian cities no longer have non-stop flights to the United States, including Canada’s capital, Ottawa. At least triple that number have lost similar flights south of the border.

CityRoutesAirlines
Victoria1Alaska
Abbotsford1Swoop
Kelowna3Alaska, Swoop, Westjet
Edmonton11Air Canada, Alaska, Delta, Swoop, United, Westjet
Saskatoon4Delta, Westjet
Regina3Westjet
London, ON2Swoop
Hamilton3Swoop
Ottawa10Air Canada, American, Delta, United, Westjet
Halifax5Air Canada, United, Westjet
St. John's3Westjet

Air Canada, as the busiest transborder airline before the pandemic, cut the most service. While it did preserve a skeleton of international service through the depths of the pandemic, this summer, it has concentrated on restarting service from three hubs; Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Westjet has followed a similar patter. While it dropped international service in March, it has gradually started to rebuild a small international network, featuring six U.S. routes to five cities. Before the pandemic, Westjet was the second-busiest transborder airline with 61 routes, 75 if you include its low-cost subsidiary, Swoop.

“We will get back,” said Swoop President and Chief Executive Officer Charles Duncan, referring to the airline’s U.S. service. “The bigger challenge is when.”

As you might expect, U.S. carriers have also reduced their Canadian schedules.

Although none has pulled out of the Canadian market altogether, the pattern repeats itself, with cities and services disappearing from the route map.

About that restart

Obviously, the coronavirus will largely dictate if and when air service restarts. Not even the industry’s most ardent backers are calling for an immediate border reopening.

“Many parts of the U.S. are real hot zones right now,” said Future Borders Coalition Executive Director Gerry Bruno in an interview. “We don’t want to import any cases into Canada.”

For Bruno, who is also the Vice President of Government Relations at Vancouver International Airport, it’s time for governments to start thinking of ways to get ahead of the pandemic. And administrations on both sides of the border have to do it together. His group, which includes airlines and others with an interest in getting people travelling again, is pitching COVID-19 testing as a possible solution to open borders safely. It’s all about reducing the risk.

A security guard from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority checks temperatures at Vancouver International Airport. (photo: Vancouver Airport Authority).

“We’re looking at things such as a health pre-clearance concept where, much like we do in aviation security,” said Bruno. “The idea is that travellers have to do a COVID test 72 hours in advance. And if they are negative, when they get to the airport maybe there’s a second rapid COVID test – it’s under development right now – so that way anyone who enters our terminal building at the airport is COVID-free.”

The idea is to create a multi-layered approach to stopping the virus. Additional layers would include temperature checks, thorough cleaning, physical distancing wherever it’s possible, and masks where it isn’t. It’s the same idea used to protect airplanes from hijacking or attack.

“Probably safer than people going to grocery stores or restaurants,” said Bruno. “We can’t solve the community spread, but we can certainly solve the air travel continuum as a potential super-spreader. Instead of being the problem, we become part of the solution.”

Testing the concept

A solution can seem a long way off. Canada and the U.S. have vastly different approaches to the pandemic. That has led to pressure, particularly in Canada, to keep the border closed to non-essential travel.

“We agree,” said Bruno with a chuckle. “What we’re looking at is how do we gradually, on a phased basis, permit a reopening, an easing of restrictions? Let’s do some pilots.”

The idea is to start with volunteers who travel frequently and would be willing to submit themselves to testing to see if the system works. He points to people in the tech industry, who would normally travel frequently between Vancouver and Seattle, as likely volunteers.

“If it works, can we expand it to other segments of travel?” said Bruno. “If we can scale it up so that more airports and apply it to the land border etc, then we can gradually open things up because we know that people coming in have been tested and are not going to spread the disease.”

“We can’t just do nothing”

Best case scenario, Bruno hopes a pilot to open the borders safely could be set up within four to six months. If it works, the system could be expanded by next spring.

Those are a lot of ifs. One of the biggest questions is who would pay? Bruno is hoping governments would cover the cost of the pilot, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Airlines are broke, airports are broke,” he said. “Governments should probably step in.” If the pilot is successful, the cost could be added to the cost of a plane ticket, similar to the security fees passengers pay every time they fly.

“We can’t just do nothing,” said Bruno. “We’ve gotta try things. Try and tackle this problem in different ways. Through that process, I think we’ll come up with a solution. It could be several solutions.”

“Increased testing is what we need to restart travel safely,” said the GBTA’s Hilfman in a statement Thursday. “It will restore confidence and revive travel demand whilst preventing new waves of infection. Borders cannot stay closed indefinitely, the economy needs trade to resume with people back to work and travelling.”

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