Westjet repatriation flights begin Monday

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

Starting Monday, Westjet and its ultra low-cost subsidiary Swoop will launch three days of rescue flights to bring thousands of Canadians home from their holiday destinations.

Westjet said it would operate 34 repatriation flights between Monday and Wednesday from Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, and the Caribbean. Swoop will add 13 flights to bring 2,300 passengers home.

“In the face of this global crisis, WestJetters are dedicated to bringing Canadians home,” said Ed Sims, WestJet President and Chief Executive Officer in a statement. “WestJet is known for its caring spirit and will do the right thing for our country, for our guests and for our people.”

After that, both airlines will suspend international flights, except to operate government-arranged flights to rescue Canadians trapped overseas by the COVID-19 pandemic. Westjet also plans to reduce its domestic capacity by 50%, though Swoop continues to plan a full schedule to its five Canadian destinations.

Sunwing will end its repatriation programme Sunday, having brought some 66,000 Canadians home, including offering free seats to people who were not Sunwing passengers.

Air Canada completed its first repatriation flight Saturday night, delivering 444 people from Casablanca to Montreal.

Air Transat reported repatriating about 10,000 passengers in the past week.

The federal government said Saturday it is still working to get thousands of Canadians home. They’ve been stranded by sealed borders, airspace restrictions, and airport closures all caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working with Canadian airlines to have commercial flights in coming days to bring Canadians home in these countries: Peru, Spain, Morocco,” Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne tweeted late Saturday.

Ottawa is essentially acting as a travel agent during the pandemic. Arranging commercial flights, matching airlines with Canadians who have registered with Foreign Affairs, and getting clearances from host countries to get citizens and permanent residents out.

“We’re working around the clock to make sure the airlines have commercial flights available for as many Canadians abroad as possible,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.

Both admitted it would be impossible to get every Canadian home.

The list of the devastation caused by the pandemic to Canada’s airlines is nothing short of stunning:

  • Porter Airlines, a regional carrier out of Toronto has already shut down.
  • Sunday night, Westjet will drop all international service and cut domestic capacity 50%, except for the rescue flights and begin laying off staff or offering voluntary unpaid time off. Subsidiary Swoop will follow suit.
  • Monday, Sunwing will wind down all operations and lay off hundreds of staff.
  • Transat will start winding down its operations and laying off staff.
  • Tuesday, Pacific Coastal, a regional carrier based in Vancouver, will ground most of its fleet.
  • Flair Airlines will cut 50% of its capacity and lay off about 60 people.
  • Canadian North will cut its flights by half and stop flying non-residents and essential workers to the Northwest Territories.
  • Air Canada will begin the process of cutting 80% of its capacity and shed more than 5,100 flight attendants plus an undisclosed number of pilots from the payroll.