A plan to safely restart air travel


Government Flight Plan for safe air travel assembles measures already in place and promises no new money for aviation sector

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

The Canadian government has released a Flight plan for safe air travel that assembles dozens of measures already in place to help restart the aviation industry from the depths of the pandemic and opens possibilities for future developments.

“We want the travel experience to be as safe as possible for Canadians,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau in a video presenting the federal plan.

Measures to restart air travel in the plan, most of them already announced, include:

  • Guidance to airports on extra cleaning
  • Guidance to maintain physical distancing or, where that’s not possible, a requirement to wear a face mask
  • Recommendations for more and better signage
  • Temperature checks for passengers
  • Refusing boarding to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau presents Canada’s Flight Plan for safe air travel (Transport Canada).

At the same time, the government said it is working on future projects that may encourage people to fly again. One is working with provinces on better contact tracing for sick passengers who fly. British Columbia’s public health officer, Bonnie Henry, has been particularly vocal about the need for better information.

Ottawa will also study new technologies to detect COVID-19 at airports. “The Government of Canada will carefully consider any additional measures of this nature to ensure they are grounded in evidence and make sense in the Canadian context,” the plan reads.


Rare show of unity

In a rare show of unity, Air Canada and Westjet, joined by Canada’s two busiest airports, welcomed the document.

“The document is a clear endorsement of biosafety programs already put in place by Air Canada, WestJet, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and the Vancouver Airport Authority,” they said in a joint news release Friday afternoon.

“By aligning the Canadian aviation sector with best international practices for customer health and safety, the Government of Canada has now established the necessary science-based preconditions that assure customers of the highest levels of safety for air travel and for reopening Canadian aviation across provinces and to the world,” said Calin Rovinescu, President and Chief Executive of Air Canada.

“We remain committed to working with the Government of Canada to ensure all protocols are consistent with the best practices and advice available to us from around the world,” said Westjet chief executive Ed Sims.

Major omissions

The plan omits immediate solutions to some of the most pressing problems airlines and airports say they’re facing. Notably, it does not offer a financial lifeline to airlines or airports, nor does it set out a timeline to reopen Canada to most foreign travel.

“In regard to travel restrictions, public health is a shared jurisdiction within Canada,” the government says in its plan. “Domestically, provinces and territories are opening their borders and economies based on their respective public health situations. “

Canada’s Atlantic provinces have opened up a so-called travel bubble that allows residents to travel freely in the region. Anyone coming from outside the area, however, is either banned or subject to two-week quarantines. For example, a resident of British Columbia can travel to Yukon and all the way to Quebec, but not to Newfoundland, PEI, New Brunswick, Nunavut, or the Northwest Territories.

“The Government of Canada continues to work with provincial/territorial health authorities to explore opportunities for loosening domestic travel restrictions in a way that manages the spread of COVID-19 and puts the safety of Canadians first,” reads the federal plan.

A desire to open up

“As time goes on, there will be growing concern about regional routes and markets and when they come back,” said Chorus President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Rempell during a conference call this week. Chorus is based in Halifax and runs Jazz which does the bulk of Air Canada’s regional flying.

Despite turning a profit in the last quarter, Randell is anxious about Canadians’ ability to fly. “Obviously we need to see that Air Canada is able to effectively deploy the fleet that we have and that there is good demand. And that’s why we are really so worried that government restrictions are fact-based, that there is a desire to open things up more as other countries have done.”

Transport Canada released its plan the same day Ottawa extended a border closure with the United States. “We are extending the reciprocal restrictions at the Canada-US border for another 30 days, till Sept. 21, 2020,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair in a tweet. “We will continue to do what’s necessary to keep our communities safe.”

Foreign Affairs continues to advise against all non-essential travel outside the country.

“Some regions around the world are exploring “health corridors” to enable international travel, whereby countries are beginning to ease restrictions and quarantine requirements for travellers from countries with an established public health environment similar to their own (like standards of testing and low number of cases),” reads the federal plan. The government said it is monitoring the development of these corridors.

Traffic decimated

Together with pandemic-induced economic uncertainty, those restrictions have decimated passenger traffic. Just 20,000 people passed through Ottawa International in June, down 95% from last year. Data suggest passenger numbers have only recovered slightly in July and August.

“Factors such as domestic travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, international and transborder travel restrictions, mandatory quarantine for all travellers entering Canada, and contact-tracing processes, all have an impact on the sector’s operations,” the government acknowledges.

Canada’s largest airports depend on passengers for their operating and capital revenues. The pandemic is costing them millions and a quick restart to air travel is a priority.

“As a result of COVID-19 there is very limited visibility on travel demand given changing government restrictions in place around the world,” the Greater Toronto Airport Authority said in its quarterly report. “These restrictions and concerns about travel due to COVID-19 are severely inhibiting demand.”

Toronto International released figures Thursday showing the airport burned through $228 million of its cash reserves in April, May, and June. That’s $2.5 million a day.