Airlines welcome border opening report

Expert panel recommends eliminating tests and quarantines for fully vaccinated people, laying the groundwork for eventual vaccine passport in Canada

airlines border
An Air Canada Boeing 787 departs Vancouver International Airport January 13, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

Canada’s airlines are welcoming an expert panel report that could pave the way for the country to reopen its border to global travel.

The COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel makes several recommendations that would upend the government’s approach to the border. Most importantly, it recommends doing away with Canada’s mandatory hotel stay for international arrivals. The panel, mostly made up of doctors, says the hotel policy is expensive and inconsistent. It also recommends testing on arrival for all but a small segment of travellers.

airline border
Source: Canada’s Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel.

Under the panel’s recommendations, non-vaccinated people would face the most stringent requirements to enter Canada. Those who have received two doses of vaccine would face the least – a test on arrival and no quarantine period. Canada closed its borders to most non-Canadians 15 months ago. Canada also requires the vast majority of passengers to quarantine on arrival for 14 days.

“Over the past 15 months, WestJet has been requesting science-based travel guidance and this report represents a responsible path forward,” said Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims. “These findings are evidence-based recommendations that are proportionate and reduce risks. We ask that the government immediately prepare a safe restart plan based on this report and current global policies. With vaccinations ramping up, Canadians need to know they can travel once again.” 

The panel cited evidence, part of it gathered at Westjet’s Calgary hub, showing fewer than two per cent of travellers arrived in Canada with COVID. Most of the data were gathered before the widespread distribution of effective vaccines.

No timeline to reopen

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not lay out a timeline Thursday for ending the hotel policy or reopening the border. Both have been key demands of airlines as they try to forecast travel demand.

“Current data shows that these requirements are working,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a statement. “There has been a 96% reduction in air traffic and 90% reduction in non-commercial land traffic into Canada compared to pre-pandemic volumes.”

They also promised the government “will be prudent in its approach, keeping the health and safety of Canadians top of mind. The Government of Canada will also consider the Panel’s recommendations to determine how testing and quarantine strategies should evolve to address vaccination status.”

“We strongly support these recommendations,” said Mike McNaney of the National Airlines Council of Canada. “And they are in-keeping with policy measures that are already being implemented by other countries as they release their plans for the safe re-start of aviation and travel.”

“We do need help from the government to lay out what that roadmap would be and to communicate it well in advance so that we can all – airlines, hotels, everyone in the value chain, and consumers – can plan and prepare,” said Swoop President Charles Duncan in an interview.

Opening the door to a vaccine passport

While never mentioned by name in its report, the panel gives tacit support to the idea of a vaccine passport. The idea – backed by the International Air Transport Association – would provide a secure way for passengers to provide their testing and vaccination data to international governments. So far, 32 international airlines have signed on to test the programme. Canada has been slow to warm to the idea.

The panel’s report also opens the door to restarting international air service to more airports. As it stands, the government restricts international arrivals to Canada’s four largest airports – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary.

“Larger airports are experts in logistics and should be able to scale up to accommodate larger volumes,” the panel report said. “However, they will need advance notice to prepare. The more advance the notice, the more prepared they will be.”

Other international airports, such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Halifax, may need more time, the experts conclude.

“Smaller airports may face more challenges,” they wrote. “It will be important that all logistical elements, including adequate resources and scaling, are in place to ensure safe and effective movement of travellers, as well as effective communications about testing and quarantine.”

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