U.S. airlines offer flights to sun destinations while Canadian planes sit idle

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Canadians determined to fly to sunny destinations are still able to do so despite new travel restrictions announced by the federal government last week.

Though Canadian airlines have temporarily suspended flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, flights departing Canadian cities to sun destinations are available aboard U.S. carriers.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, for example, are selling tickets for flights from Toronto to Cancun, with passengers connecting through U.S. cities like Charlotte, NC, and Philadelphia, PA, an online search shows.

Canadian airlines have been losing market share over the last several months to foreign carriers, which, unlike Canadian airlines, have received sector-specific aid from their governments, said Mike McNaney, the president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada.

"We assume the government is also engaging foreign operators on this issue to ensure we are all taking the same concerted approach," McNaney said.

American Airlines said it had no schedule changes to share. Delta didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that Canadian airlines had agreed to suspend flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30, in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

The prime minister announced the suspensions along with stricter measures aimed at reducing international travel, including a requirement that entrants to Canada quarantine in a hotel at their own expense.

On Monday, Bloc Quebecois Transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval highlighted the loophole, saying in a statement that the flight suspensions put Canadian companies at a disadvantage.

Asked why Canadian airlines suspended routes while American carriers continue to operate flights to the same destinations, Morgan Bell, a spokeswoman for WestJet, said Transport Canada would have to clarify.

"Recognizing that air travel represents less than two per cent of the transmission of COVID, the government asked us to stop flying to these destinations out of an abundance of caution, and we agreed," Bell said.

Transport Canada didn't respond to an email requesting comment.

The new restrictions come weeks after Canada implemented a requirement that all air passengers travelling to Canada produce evidence of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

The testing mandate caused an immediate drop in flight bookings, airlines said, leading to additional layoffs. With the latest restrictions, experts say they expect further layoffs, along with potential bankruptcies, if government aid for the sector doesn't materialize.

The suspensions of flights to sun destinations will cost Air Canada, the country's largest carrier, around $200 million in lost revenue between now and April 30, industry analyst John Gradek said.

The flights that Canadian airlines continue to offer include trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes along which carriers transport cargo, a business that has become increasingly important to airlines' bottom lines as revenue from passenger sales dries up.

U.S. airlines such as Delta and American have received tens of billions of dollars in federal aid since the start of the pandemic. The government stimulus passed by the U.S. Congress in March 2020 included US$25 billion in payroll support for the industry, US$25 billion in loans for passenger airlines and more than US$10 billion in grants and loans for cargo airlines and aviation contractors.

Airlines in Canada, meanwhile, have been in negotiations with the government for months about the terms of a sector-specific aid package, with Ottawa saying that any federal funding for airlines would be contingent on their issuing full refunds to passengers who had their flights cancelled during the pandemic.

Canada's airlines have still received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, a federal spending program that helps cover a portion of companies' payroll costs during the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021.

Jon Victor, The Canadian Press