Rules and regulations

Prime minister sets his sights on domestic travel

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Canada already restricts international air travel, now the prime minister tells Canadians not to travel on domestic flights across the country

An Air Canada Airbus A220 departs Vancouver International Airport January 14, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is ratcheting up the pressure on the aviation industry, advising Canadians against domestic travel. In doing so, Trudeau is expanding on government advice to avoid non-essential travel outside the country.

“Across the country, people are being told to stay home,” Trudeau said at a news conference Friday. “The bottom line is this: it’s not the time to travel either internationally or even across the country.”

Travel restrictions are necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials argue.

“People need to hunker down, stay home,” the prime minister said. “Make sure we kill this second wave of the virus so that we can get through into the spring and the increase of millions of doses of vaccines that will be arriving in Canada, in the best position possible.”

The message harkens back to Trudeau’s words during the earliest weeks of the pandemic when the message was ‘stay home.’

The warning drew swift reaction from Canada’s aviation industry.

“If Canada is considering further travel restrictions, it should be consulting with industry now as implementation and compliance are much easier and smoother when those in the industry ultimately charged with implementing them are engaged in discussions from the outset,” said Daniel-Robert Gooch in an email. He’s the president of the Canadian Airports Council, which represents the country’s largest facilities.

Policy roll-out challenges

Implementation of new COVID measures for airlines has not been the federal government’s strong suit. It gave airlines only seven days’ notice of new pre-flight COVID testing measures for international travellers.

“As you are aware, the implementation of the pre-departure testing regime placed a great deal of strain on the industry as we sought to implement the new requirements in the span of one week, working with officials at a feverish pace to develop the necessary regulations and guidance material,” reads an extraordinary letter to federal ministers from the National Airlines Council of Canada and four unions. “As the government considers potentially new measures impacting aviation, we are requesting that industry and labour groups be involved in such deliberations as soon as possible.”

Some 50,000 people have cancelled travel plans as a result of the new measures, said Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Canada already boasts some of the toughest restrictions on international travel. On top of the pre-flight COVID test, Canada closed the border to most non-Canadians, and most of those who do make it into the country must quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

Statistics Canada reported Friday just how few people are travelling by air to Canada. Only 14,100 Americans travelled to Canada by air in November, down almost 96%. Only 1,800 people from China; 4,000 from the United Kingdom and France. At the same time, 127,700 Canadians returned from out of country travel in November. That’s down 91% from 2019.

And Ottawa is considering further measures, such as forcing people arriving from overseas to quarantine in hotels at their own expense.

“We are looking at all sorts of new measures ways we could adopt to ensure that we are protecting Canadians and discourage non-essential trips,” Trudeau said in French. “It’s not the time to plan foreign travel, particularly non-essential or holiday trips. We could bring in new measures without warning, that could make the return to Canada a lot more difficult.”

Trudeau hopes the measures will only be in effect for a few more months.

Last flight since 1942

Airlines have responded to the crisis by cutting flights and closing bases, often blaming government restrictions. Gander, Newfoundland marked its last Air Canada flight Friday, ending almost 79 years of continuous service at the island community.

“The end of an era,” read a tweet from the Town of Gander. “The time to act is now!”

“We need to think more about staying in our communities as we’re rolling out this programme,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer. She spoke as the province revealed its priorities and timelines for COVID vaccinations. “Once we get to the summer, we’re probably going to be in a different position.” Though Henry said the prospects for renewed international travel are far less certain.

Henry made her comments as Canada marks one year Monday since the appearance of the first COVID-19 case in the country.

Airports have felt the effects of the fall off. January is typically when they report passenger numbers for the previous year. So far, only a handful of airports have reported 2019 full-year results, but those that have show the pandemic’s devastation. The decrease in passenger numbers ranges from 73% in Ottawa to 64% in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Airport20192020% change
Edmonton7,657,0722,294,057-70.0
Kelowna2,032,019737,447-63.7
Ottawa5,106,4871,363,512-73.3
Prince George496,714176,994-64.4
Victoria1,924,385574,837-70.1
Halifax4,188,443995,426-76.2
Charlottetown383,18371,480-81.3
Saskatoon1,488,810462,557-68.9
Kamloops351,586123,657-64.8
Calgary17,957,7805,675,483-68.4
Toronto50,496,20113,307,077-73.6
Montreal20,305,1065,426,862-73.3
Vancouver26,379,8707,300,287-72.3

Help on the way?

“Canada’s airports appreciate that the severity of the second wave of COVID-19 and the emergence of virus variants have caused governments around the world review and revise measures to safeguard travellers and communities from COVID-19 spread and importation,” said Gooch.

“Any restrictions that might be imposed should be targeted, and based on evidence of changing threat and risk conditions in specific regions,” he said.

And then, he took the opportunity to repeat a message that has so far failed to make significant inroads.

“The federal government should also accept greater responsibility for the impact of these compounding measures on the ongoing viability of airports and our partner organizations across the air sector, if we are to sustain this crisis and be properly positioned to support recovery in our tourism sector and the Canadian economy,” he wrote.

Airports in Canada generate their revenues largely from passengers traffic. So the pandemic has had an outsized effect on their finances.

It its fall economic update, the Liberal government promised to help airports cope with the downturn. But aid has been slow to trickle out. Thursday, Ottawa announced $11 million to support regional aviation in Ontario. That money covers July 1 to December 31, 2020, the release said.

While Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has tweeted about the importance of aviation to Canada. But so far, he has yet to announce any aid for airlines.

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