Airline industry still waiting for federal relief package after demand takes a nosedive
OTTAWA -- Canada’s beleaguered airline industry is warning that some flights to smaller, distant communities could soon be grounded.
WestJet has already cancelled most flights into Atlantic Canada and now regional airlines say they need government help to keep servicing other routes, including northern communities heavily dependent on air travel.
Regional airports are particularly at risk.
“Everyone is hurting,” says John McKenna, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada. “In Canada we have a huge country and a very small population so our industry is very stretched out or thin.”
With a loss of more than 90 per cent of passenger traffic, thousands of aviation workers have been laid off or furloughed.
Karene Benabou, a former flight attendant for Air Transat and union president, says she’s unsure what lays ahead for her after losing her job earlier this year. “I’ve been laid off since April after 23 years of being a flight attendant. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this job back,” she said.
Airlines have benefitted from the federal wage subsidy program, but eight months into the pandemic, the government has yet to draft a plan tailored for the industry.
At a news conference on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the issue.
“My largest preoccupation is always going to be for Canadians themselves, for workers, and for people in rural and remote or even not so rural or remote regions like Atlantic Canada,” he said.
The government is considering interest-free loans and reductions to landing fees and airport rents. But no word of help for the many passengers left holding non-refundable tickets they could not use because of the pandemic.
Earlier this week, WestJet announced that it will be issuing refunds for all flights cancelled because of COVID-19.
In a statement the company said it would “begin providing refunds to original form of payment for those guests with flights cancelled by WestJet and Swoop, from any time period, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” starting Nov. 2.
Opposition parties in parliament and consumers’ rights advocates on the ground have been asking the federal government to make passenger refunds a mandatory prerequisite in order for airlines to become eligible for any potential bailout package.
Trudeau has not yet mentioned if a government aid package would be dependent on airlines paying back passengers or on maintaining service to smaller destinations.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators have clearance for a new alliance between WestJet and Delta Airlines. Their pact will include benefits for each others’ frequent flyers, and new destinations.