Omar Alghabra grilled at Transport Committee

Minister faces questions about support for aviation and NAV Canada service reviews that threaten the future of numerous control towers

omar alghabra transport committee
The closed domestic check-in area at Vancouver International Airport. The facility has consolidated facilities due to COVID-19 (Brett Ballah).

The normally collegial atmosphere of the Commons Transport Committee gained a partisan edge Thursday as MPs grilled Transport Minister Omar Alghabra over the government’s lack of support for the aviation sector.

“Tens of thousands of workers have been laid off,” said Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval. “And millions of passengers have had their money taken hostage by airlines. Canada is the only G7 country that hasn’t offered support to airlines or forced them to reimburse passengers. I find that completely unacceptable. People have been waiting forever, and you get the impression you’re doing nothing. Minister, you may not know it, but you’re the boss. What’s preventing you from imposing your conditions to save jobs and force airlines to reimburse passengers?”

Alghabra, in his first appearance since he was appointed Transport Minister on January 12, said discussions with airlines on a bailout package are ongoing. But he would not commit to a timeline. Discussions are being led by officials in the Finance Ministry, according to published reports.

“Since March, 12, your government has been saying that they were looking into mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation sector with some type of support,” said Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie. “Yet discussions didn’t start until November, 8 2020. So can I ask you minister what took your government so long to act in favour of this sector in an attempt to help this airline sector and to help connect Canadians, with a strong and viable airline sector?”

Increasing pressure

“I acknowledge that the second wave and the introduction of new variants of COVID and the implementation of new travel measures that added further burden on the airline sector,” Alghabra replied, “have introduced a new sense of urgency and a specific need for measures for the airline sector.”

Westjet turned up pressure on the minister Thursday morning. The airline announced it will pull service from four cities – St. John’s, London, Ontario, Medicine Hat, and Lloydminster – for three months starting March 24. The cut affects 10 weekly flights. The airline blamed government policies for the decision.

“We have continued to operate in the face of uncertainty as domestic and international travel restrictions and quarantines have caused demand to plummet,” said Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims in a statement. “Unfortunately, with new and increasingly restrictive policies, we are left once again, with no other option than to suspend service to these communities.”

The airline did not say how many jobs would be affected. Westjet contracted out ground operations in St. John’s and London last summer. Pacific Coastal operates flights to Lloydminster and Medicine Hat on Westjet’s behalf. Westjet said it would work with partner companies on the suspension.

Canada’s airlines have cut tens of thousands of jobs and dozens of routes. Service to smaller centres and Atlantic Canada have been particularly hard hit. Canada’s Finance Ministry is leading negotiations, according to multiple reports.

Questioning NAV Canada

The minister also faced questions about moves by NAV Canada that may lead to job losses. NAV Canada is the private company that runs the country’s air traffic control network, including high-level flying over the Arctic and the North Atlantic. It earns revenues from airline fees based on size of aircraft and distance flown. In January, the agency reported traffic was down 56.8% compared to 2019. That has a huge effect on the bottom line.

“As you are aware NAV Canada is planning to close seven air traffic control towers across the country, including the one in Regina,” said Saskatchewan MP Michael Kram. “So, why don’t you instruct NAV Canada to stop its study to close air traffic control towers, until air travel has returned to normal levels, after the pandemic is over?”

“If I issued instructions to nav Canada on its operation, I know this committee would be very interested to invite me back to ask me why I’m breaking the legislative powers that I have,” replied Alghabra. “I have heard loudly, the anxiety and the concerns of job losses. I am monitoring the situation, I await the studies that NAV Canada is conducting.”

NAV Canada has issued layoff notices to controllers, though the company called it an administrative move. Last month, representatives of two NAV Canada unions asked for $750 million in financial support to tide the company over.

“NAV Canada raised its fees 30% and announced a review of required services in all of Quebec’s regions,” said Barsalou-Duval. “Controllers received layoff notices before aeronautical studies were completed. Can you assure us that no towers will be closed and that you’ll tell NAV Canada they have to keep their towers open?”

“Any decision that NAV Canada makes that will compromise or have an impact on safety will be reviewed by Transport Canada,” Alghabra shot back. “And that is my commitment to my colleagues and to all Canadians.”


True leadership?

The minister did his best to show empathy for people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

“I know many are anxious and frustrated about the fact that negotiations on financial help for the sector have not yet concluded,” said Alghabra. “To those Canadians who have written to me know that I’m acutely aware of the tool, this crisis has taken on your lives.”

Later, he called the government’s approach “true leadership.”

“We’re guided by public health advice,” he said. “I don’t personally take any joy in these difficult decisions. But they are necessary. This is what true leadership means.”

“Well leadership,” Kusie fired back, leading to the most heated confrontation of the meeting, “would have been implementing rapid testing and testing on arrival. So that these drastic measures wouldn’t have been required. But I certainly hope you have more success than your predecessor.”

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Categories: Airlines, COVID, Rules and regulations

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