General aviation

Sunwing to suspend operations, lay off crews

A Sunwing Boeing 737 departs Vancouver International Airport February 20, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Sunwing has become the first Canadian airline to say it would suspend operations as the COVID-19 crisis ravages the airline industry.

The airline told its unions Monday night that layoffs will take effect in a little more than three weeks.

The airline announced Monday it would stop flying passengers south to its resort destinations and instead focus on getting Canadians home. So far, the airline has repatriated some 11,000 people and vows to continue until all customers are safely home. With no end to the crisis in sight, the company said it had no choice but to issue layoff notices.

“While we have communicated a temporary suspension of our southbound flights up until April 10th, at this time we cannot confirm when commercial southern flight operations will resume,” the company said in a statement.  “That is why Sunwing was forced to communicate layoffs to our flight and cabin crew members yesterday evening.”

Sunwing specializes in all-inclusive holidays to destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and the southern United States, including a number of countries that have closed their borders.

Unifor, the union representing pilots, said 470 of its members are affected, including some 125 who face eviction from Sunwing-rented apartments in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Quebec City.

“We will not accept any situation where workers are left to fend for themselves, not at Sunwing, not anywhere,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President. “That’s why we’ve called on all levels of government to confront this unprecedented pandemic with unprecedented action to protect the livelihoods of workers affected by this crisis.”

The union is calling on the federal government to provide emergency income assistance to all families during the crisis. The airline said it is “Actively seeking government support.”

The President of the Air Transport Association of Canada, John McKenna, laid out the challenges facing charter airlines in bleak terms in an interview with Western Aviation News. “Tour operators have seen their cancellation rates go to almost 100%. Worse than that, the’ve got to reimburse people.”

“These are incredibly difficult decisions to make,” Sunwing said in an e-mail. “Sunwing was formed on a vision of not only being a high-quality travel group; but also providing high-quality jobs for Canadians. But the circumstances we face are dire and we must take action to ensure the long-term viability of our business.”

The company added it intends to recall staff once it can resume southbound operations. Unifor worries things may not get back to normal for a full year.

Airlines around the world face incredible pressure as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Air Canada has slashed capacity by 50% including suspending service to a host of international cities. Rival Westjet announced Monday it would withdraw all international service and cut its domestic operations by half for at least a month.

A message on Sunwing’s website tells customers who have booked travel between April 10 and 30, “may cancel and receive a future travel credit in the value of the original package price paid.”