‘Wrong time’ to promote air travel: epidemiologist


University of Toronto expert criticizes airlines who are pushing for Canadians to travel

A security guard from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority checks temperatures at Vancouver International Airport. (photo: Vancouver Airport Authority).

An epidemiologist from the University of Toronto says, even though they’re struggling, it’s the wrong time for airlines to promote air travel in Canada.

“I’m very concerned about the attitudes taken by airlines with seat sales and pushing aggressively, very aggressively to get people travelling,” Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, told the CBC Wednesday afternoon.

The pandemic has decimated airlines in Canada – they’ve seen their passenger volumes decline by 80% or more through the summer. Normally, July and August would be the busiest months of the year. Calgary International Airport reported handling 288,740 passengers in July, a decline of 84% from the previous year. Vancouver’s July traffic was down almost 88%.

Airlines have responded by slashing their schedules, cutting staff, and introducing more flexible ticket policies. On Wednesday, Air Canada introduced a new flight pass, offering unlimited travel in Canada.

“Air Canada recognizes that as air travel begins to return to normal customers want flexibility and certainty,” said Lucie Guillemette, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Air Canada.

Returning to normal is exactly what worries Furness. “I know people want to travel,” he said. “There’s a lot of travel I’ve missed out on. I get that. But this is the wrong time to do that.”

Managing the risk

Wrong time or not, airlines have been pushing to safely reopen the air travel market. Air Canada and the Toronto Airport Authority are collecting data on people arriving in the country from overseas. On the West Coast, Westjet and the Vancouver Airport Authority are planning to offer COVID tests to passengers before they board. It’s all in a bid to bring more science to the pandemic, the airlines say.

They have also mounted a public relations and lobbying campaign. Since the beginning of July, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu has met 10 times with government officials on COVID response, according to a federal registry.

The federal transport minister indicated the government is listening. But Marc Garneau warned not to expect drastic action any time soon.

“What we’re doing is making sure that there’s a proper balance between the health-safety of Canadians during this period and also taking a risk management approach that examines whether it is possible to shorten quarantine,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau at the close of a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. “But that can only be done if you have a reliable test.”

Canada’s border remains closed to most foreign travellers, with limited exceptions. Anyone entering the country must quarantine for 14 days. Airlines have criticized both measures as overly restrictive.

“COVID moved around the world on airplanes,” said Furness. “COVID did not swim across the ocean to come here from Europe and from Asia. It’s something that we really need to understand, that travel is the best way to spread disease.”

82 affected flights in two weeks

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported Wednesday that 42 domestic flights and 40 international flights carried COVID-infected people in the past two weeks. PHAC warns nearby passengers may have been exposed to the virus and must monitor for symptoms.

“We take our guidance from PHAC,” said Garneau. “And they ultimately will make the decision about whether there is a way of shortening quarantine.”

At the same time, the International Air Transport Association says the risk of transmission in a plane may be lower than in an office or shopping mall. Either way, the minister said he’s not taking any chances.

“We won’t take any risks if the situation changes in Canada or in other countries that were perhaps thought of as safe, but where things have changed,” said Garneau.

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