Government ends repatriation flight programme that returned tens of thousands of people back to Canada
The Canadian government has quietly ended a flight programme that helped bring more than 50,000 people home who were stranded abroad as a result of the global pandemic.
The decision was confirmed Wednesday by two officials of Global Affairs Canada during a on online conference call with the Global Business Travel Association and seen by Western Aviation News.
“The government is not planning on any repatriation flights,” Andrea Lemelin, the Deputy Director of Consular Policy with Global Affairs, told the gathering of travel industry professionals. “Canadians have to prepare, if they travel abroad, to be able to face the restrictions that may be imposed on them in very short and limited notice.”
Begun in mid-March, the repatriation programme saw the government of Canada act as a travel agent of sorts, chartering flights from countries where significant numbers of Canadians were stranded as a result of border closures or flight cancellations. Passengers covered the cost of their tickets, with emergency loans if necessary.
No formal government announcement was made of the programme’s end, though it has been slowly winding down for weeks. Westjet announced Tuesday it was ending its repatriation flights that helped bring home more than 4,000 Canadians.
“Our commitment to the Prime Minister was to bring as many Canadians home as possible,” said Ed Sims, WestJet President and Chief Executive Officer in a statement. “Following 28 missions, we are grateful for the volunteer contributions of more than 200 WestJetters and the collaboration from our airport and government partners. These individuals came together and demonstrated their Canadian spirit to ensure the safe return of our country’s citizens.”
The Canadian government continues to advise against all non-essential travel outside the country, the third most serious warning out of four. The advice could carry insurance implications for Canadians abroad – since it has been identified as a known risk, most policies will not cover someone who contracts COVID-19 while out of the country.
Ms. Lemelin predicted Canada’s travel advisory could ease in the foreseeable future, though that won’t necessarily mean the easing of border restrictions. She said several possibilities, including travel bubbles with other countries, are being considered.
The government has imposed general restrictions on non-Canadians entering the country, except in certain circumstances. Most people landing on Canadian soil have to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
A coalition of travel-related organizations, including Air Canada whose international route structure has been decimated by the pandemic, have called on the government to begin opening the border to non-Canadians.
The number of people crossing the border during the pandemic has plummeted. Data from the Canada Border Services Agency show only 73,343 people flew into Canada in the first two weeks of July, compared to almost 1.5 million during the same period in 2019, a drop of more than 95%.
“I know people are waiting and hoping there will be a gradual reopening at some time soon,” said Denis Vinette, the CBSA’s Vice President, Travellers Branch. “We have many airports that no longer receive any flights whatsoever from international or [U.S.] destinations. For example, our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there is no U.S. flight or international flight arriving there. It is solely a domestic airport.”
In June, Ottawa served only 219 transborder passengers. Delta Air Lines dropped the last remaining international flight from the nation’s capital June 21.
Canada isn’t alone in discouraging international travel, said Vinette. “New Zealand reported for the first time ever a day about three weeks ago where no one entered the country and no one left the country.”
Even when border restrictions do start to ease, Vinette indicated getting into the country won’t necessarily be easy or fast. Health screening is likely to remain in place, making border processing about three times longer than it would normally be.
“The best scenario with social distancing and what have you, is that we can return to 30% of pre-COVID capacity,” said Vinette. “And then we will end up into being a funnel that really kind of blocks things at an airport.”
Touchless technology, including a border app that has been downloaded more than 15,000 times, along with trusted traveller programmes, will be key in getting people through the border as quickly as possible.
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