At 11:07 pm Eastern Time, Air Canada Boeing 777 touched down at Montreal-Trudeau airport with 444 Canadians on board, coming home from Casablanca and fleeing the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
The airline tweeted photos of the relieved passengers arriving in Montreal, ready to start their two-week quarantine.
Touching down from Casablana!— Air Canada (@AirCanada) March 22, 2020
En provenance de Casablanca! pic.twitter.com/EhGC0gyZXZ
It’s the first of several overseas flights for which the federal government is acting as a travel agent, ensuring planes come back full from points around the world where Canadians are stranded.
“In days to come other flights will help Canadians return from Peru, Spain, and elsewhere,” said Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne at a news conference Saturday in Ottawa.
“It’s highly complex. Some have closed their airspace, some have closed their borders, some have closed their airports,” he said.
“It will unfortunately not be possible for us to repatriate all Canadians who wish to come home.”
The minister said they will work in the coming days with Air Canada in particular “and other airlines” to make more flights happen where Canadians are stranded in sufficient numbers.
But let’s be clear, not all rescue flights are created equal.
Air Canada is not operating the flight from Casablanca to Montreal as a charity – passengers are paying $1,272 each plus tax, according to a tweet by MP Jean Yip. It’s essentially a charter flight arranged by the federal government. That’s not to say Air Canada is getting rich off the flight, but compare that to the approach Sunwing has taken.
As of Thursday, the charter carrier has been offering any available seat on its repatriation flights free to anyone who could get to the airport. So far, Sunwing said it has flown 44,000 people back to Canada from its southern resort destinations.
The airline expected the lift would cost $26 million.
“It’s the Canadian thing to do,” said Sunwing Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hunter Thursday in announcing the airline’s policy.
Please note that today’s Air Canada flight from Casablanca to Montreal has been sold out.— Canada in Morocco (@CanEmbMorocco) March 21, 2020
Sunwing expects its repatriation flights to end Monday. By then, it will have flown roughly 66,000 Canadians home.
It’s clear airlines are struggling. Demand has fallen off a cliff. This weekend, Westjet will stop flying outside the country, and Air Canada’s international network will be reduced to a shadow of its former self.
“We understand it’s a challenging time for all Canadians who are still abroad and anxious to come back home,” said Calin Rovinescu, President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada in a statement announcing the flight from Casablanca. “Our teams are working around the clock with the Canadian Government and offering our global reach to do everything we can to repatriate as many Canadians as possible, recognizing that we will not be able to assist all.”
Already this week, Air Canada stirred up a small storm when it announced it would drop service to 22 Canadian cities.
“Very dissatisfied and disappointed,” said Kamloops mayor Ken Christian when he found out his city was one on the chopping block.
Airlines around the world are asking for help to weather the pandemic storm. How they behave and how they’re perceived will greatly influence their survival rates once the pandemic abates.