Westjet to suspend international service

A Westjet Boeing 737 departs Vancouver in March 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Westjet will suspend its international operations as of Sunday as the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic exact their toll on air operations between Canada and the rest of the world.

“Today, Prime Minister Trudeau made an explicit declaration to all Canadians abroad that it is time to come home,” Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims said in a statement late Monday. “Based on this statement and the recommendations to Canadians to control the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, we have made impactful decisions related to our operations.

“On Sunday, March 22 at 11:59 p.m. MDT, we will suspend scheduled commercial operations for all international and transborder [to the United States] flights for a 30 day period.”

The move will have the largest impact on Westjet’s operations to the United States and Mexico, a significant money maker as Canadians escape the harsh northern winter. In addition, the airline plans to cut 50% of its domestic capacity.

The move is a marked escalation from Saturday night, when Westjet forecast it would cut 60% of its international capacity and 40% of its domestic capacity.

“We will be operating rescue and repatriation flights in partnership with the Canadian government,” said Sims. “As of tonight, international and transborder tickets are no longer available for sale during this 30 day period.”

Sims said sales of outbound tickets will stop as of Wednesday night, allowing the company to concentrate on getting Canadians home. Sunwing Airlines announced a similar move earlier Monday.

“To assist Canadians in returning home on short notice, we are in the process of lowering prices on our remaining seats into Canada in all cabins,” said Sims. “While this is a difficult time, we now have the responsibility as a Canadian airline to bring our citizens home.”

The airline said it would coordinate repatriation flights with the Canadian government and asked Canadians overseas to contact the federal government to register.

Ottawa closed the borders Monday to most non-Canadians. Permanent residents, U.S. citizens, air crews, and diplomats are exempt. It also announced only four airports – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary – would be allowed to accept intercontinental flights.

It is almost impossible to overstate the impact the pandemic is having on airlines. Westjet warned Saturday it was cutting costs – including the possibility of laying off staff – to “secure the financial viability of our airline.”

“Unfortunately, there will be major reductions in our workforce across all of the functions,” said Westjet’s Executive Vice President of People and Culture Mark Porter.

Executives have taken pay cuts, hiring and training have been frozen, and the airline is asking suppliers to roll back prices and wait longer for payment.

Air Canada said its capacity would be half what it was at this time last year, while the head of the Air Transport Association of Canada said charter airlines were seeing close to 100% of their bookings cancelled.