CALGARY — The CEO of WestJet Airlines Ltd. is laying the blame squarely on "incoherent" policy from Ottawa as his carrier cuts staff and flights in response to new COVID-19 testing requirements for passengers returning to Canada.
The Calgary-based airline announced Friday about 1,000 employees will be furloughed, temporarily laid off, put on unpaid leave or have their hours cut, and it will chop about 30 per cent of its capacity for February and March and pull 160 domestic departures from its schedule.
Trip cancellations and reductions in new bookings began immediately after the federal government warned of the inbound testing rules and continued requirement for a 14-day quarantine on Dec. 31, WestJet CEO Ed Sims said in a statement.
"The entire travel industry and its customers are again on the receiving end of incoherent and inconsistent government policy,"' he said.
"We have advocated over the past 10 months for a co-ordinated testing regime on Canadian soil, but this hasty new measure is causing Canadian travellers unnecessary stress and confusion and may make travel unaffordable, unfeasible and inaccessible for Canadians for years to come."
The new flight cuts mean WestJet will have reduced flights by more than 80 per cent compared with the same time last year, it said.
International capacity will be down 93 per cent year over year and only five daily flights will be offered compared with 100 last year. Overall, the airline will offer 150 daily departures, returning to levels not seen since 2001, it said.
WestJet said it currently has 5,700 active and 5,200 inactive employees, down from over 14,000 before the pandemic erupted.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday pointed out $1.5 billion in aid has flowed to the aviation industry through the federal wage subsidy and other relief measures, though none were specific to the ailing sector.
“People shouldn’t be travelling, and that of course is a direct challenge for the airline industry to manage through. At the same time we’ve made it very clear that we expect people to be reimbursed (for cancelled flights), we expect regional routes to be protected,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
The government warned in a tweet Friday afternoon that hundreds of passengers could be stranded in Jamaica indefinitely: "In #Jamaica? You may have a lot of trouble getting a #COVID19 test."
The country has reduced testing capacity, Ottawa's travel advisory says.
WestJet issued an "urgent notice" to passengers slated to fly home this weekend from Montego Bay, where there is a "lack of testing capacity" the company said. It said travellers in Jamaica were having trouble finding anywhere to book a test.
Thirty-six flights are scheduled to depart Jamaica for Canada on five different airlines — four of them Canadian — between Friday and Jan. 17, according to flight data firm Cirium.
The federal government said last week that Canada-bound air passengers would have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test result in order to board their flight — a requirement that took effect on Thursday.
WestJet said it had to deny boarding to 32 passengers on its six international flights into Canada on Thursday.
The travellers were turned away due to improper tests — antigen or antibody tests, rather than the required PCR test common in Canada and involving a deep nasal swab — no test at all, or one taken more than 72 hours before departure, spokeswoman Morgan Bell said.
“Our team on the ground has rebooked guests affected and is assisting with finding eligible tests whenever possible … to ensure they can return to Canada at a later date,” Bell said.
Air Transat denied boarding to 10 passengers who did not have a PCR test on its three northbound flights Thursday. A dozen more travellers were turned away on a flight from Paris on Friday morning.
“In addition, for the three flights, we observed a significant number of no-shows, which we cannot explain with certainty. We will follow the evolution of the situation closely in the coming days,” said Transat spokesman Christophe Hennebelle.
“There will be some stranded passengers, unfortunately – a little bit more heads-up and co-operation may have helped preventing this.”
He added Air Transat is considering adjustments to its schedule but noted its program is already minimal, moving more than 90 per cent fewer passengers in December than in the same month last year.
Air Canada said it is evaluating its schedule in view of stifled demand from ongoing travel restrictions and quarantine rules, but had no changes to announce.
However, airline industry consultant Robert Kokonis said there's no doubt it will have to enact similar measures.
"It's the perfect storm," he said. "It's arrival testing that was sprung on us with little information, with short notice, combined with the continuation of a 14-day quarantine, leading to a lot of this pain."
The cutbacks at WestJet are the result of a "continued attack" on airlines without compensation, said Chris Rauenbusch, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local that represents cabin crew members at WestJet.
Demand — already low amid federal guidance against all non-essential travel — has "evaporated" since the policy was announced on Dec. 31, Rauenbusch said.
“We completely understand the need for public health measures during a pandemic like this,” he said. “The fundamental problem we have is the employer wasn’t consulted until after the public announcement.”
WestJet, which was bought by Onex Corp. in 2019, joined Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing Airlines said, along with the National Airlines Council of Canada and the International Air Transportation Association, in unsuccessfully asking Ottawa for an 11-day extension to implement the new rules.
With a file from Anita Balakrishnan in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2021.
Companies in this story: (TSX:ONEX, TSX:AC)
Dan Healing and Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press