WestJet and Sunwing airlines are drastically changing their commercial operations to help bring Canadians home after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on citizens and permanent residents to return to the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
WestJet is suspending all of its international and trans-border flights for 30 days to help control the spread of COVID-19, starting on Sunday, March 22, said WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims.
In a statement posted early Tuesday, Sims said that the last commercially scheduled flights from international and trans-border destinations will depart on Sunday night by 11:59 p.m. local time.
“After that, we will be operating rescue and repatriation flights in partnership with the Canadian government,” said Sims.
First rescue flights have departed
Sunwing, which specializes in flying visitors to sun destinations, said Monday that it’s cancelled all southbound flights from March 17 to April 9 to focus on “repatriating customers in destination,” which it estimates at 100,000 passengers.
Sunwing said it had dispatched its first four rescue flights Monday to bring more than 500 Canadians home from Honduras, Aruba, Panama and St. Maarten, which are countries that have announced the imminent closure of their borders.
“... so we are no longer sending Canadians out of the country and can instead focus on bringing them home.”
“It’s important that we do our part to contain the spread of COVID-19, while assuring our customers and their families that we are fully committed to bring each and every one of them home to Canada,” said Sunwing president and CEO Stephen Hunter.
Sunwing passengers affected by the flight cancellations during the March 17 to April 9 window are eligible for a full cash refund or future travel credit, said Hunter. Those who choose the credit can receive an additional $100 per person to use towards a future booking, he added.
WestJet is also lowering prices on remaining seats to Canada in all cabins to “assist Canadians in returning home on short notice,” Sims stated.
The move to help repatriate Canadians will impact the Calgary-based airline’s domestic schedule, as it plans to reduce flights within Canada by about 50 per cent.
As of Monday night, tickets to foreign destinations during the 30-day period are no longer available for sale.
Sales of outbound international tickets will be halted for four days, from Wednesday, March 18 at 11:59 p.m. MDT to Sunday, March 22 at 11:59 p.m. MDT. This is “so we are no longer sending Canadians out of the country and can instead focus on bringing them home,” said Sims.
All of the changes are in effect for the next 30 days.
On Monday, Trudeau announced more aggressive border measures to combat COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus that has killed four people in Canada and more than 3,300 worldwide.
The prime minister said the country’s borders will close to nearly everyone but citizens and permanent residents. Some exceptions, however, include U.S. citizens, diplomats and airline crew.
International flights arriving in Canada will be funnelled exclusively through Canada’s biggest airports in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
Trudeau urged Canadians abroad to find ways to return home before the countries they are currently in potentially introduce additional travel restrictions that could leave them outside of Canada for the unforeseeable future.
“If you’re abroad, it’s time for you to come home. If you’ve just arrived, you must self-isolate for 14 days,” Trudeau said, stressing that all Canadians should stay at home as much as possible.
Industry impacts could include layoffs
Meanwhile, Air Canada announced it is halving its seat capacity in the second quarter and withdrawing its earnings forecast for 2020 and 2021 amid a “severe drop in traffic” due to the novel coronavirus.
The announcement sent shares of the country’s largest airline into a tailspin.
Air Canada has now suspended or postponed 18 transatlantic routes and also reduced capacity in the Pacific market by 75 per cent, suspending flights to mainland China and cutting back routes to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul as travel fears spread with the new virus.
Last week, The Canadian Press reported the union representing WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of more than 50 per cent of its staff amid a growing number of flight cancellations due to the pandemic.
An internal memo sent to union officials and obtained by The Canadian Press said that travellers are rebooking en masse and “our airline’s well-being has become grave overnight.”
According to its website, WestJet flies to more than 100 destinations in North America, Central America, the Caribbean and Europe with a fleet of more than 150 aircraft.
With a file from Zi-Ann Lum and The Canadian Press