Canada’s borders have slammed shut this week, with the measures announced on Monday barring entry to all foreigners besides Canadian permanent residents and US citizens, and additional measures today to restrict US citizens from non-essential travel as well.
The aviation industry around the world is at a virtual standstill, and the impact on Canada’s airlines has been severe to say the least, with Porter Airlines today announcing a suspension in services until June 2020 amid a drastic scaling back in services by Air Canada and WestJet.
Air Canada & WestJet Drastically Cutting Capacity
With our borders closed, Air Canada has slashed its capacity in international markets by almost 50% for the upcoming period. You can find the full list of affected routes at this page on the Air Canada website.
The airline has announced today that it will be limiting its international routes to only six gateway airports of London, Paris, Frankfurt, Delhi, Tokyo and Hong Kong until at least April 30, while its US operations will be scaled down to only 13 airports from the usual 53.
Air Canada is offering a blanket waiver of change and cancellation fees on all new bookings made after March 4; however, bookings made before that, for travel up to April 30, are only eligible for a credit towards a future trip.
Meanwhile, WestJet has announced that it will be suspending all international and transborder routes as of March 22, and will solely be operating domestic routes for the foreseeable future.
WestJet implements a similar blanket waiver policy for bookings as of March 3, and given the exceedingly long wait times at the moment, allows customers to submit requests for change or cancellation online, as well as request a credit for no-show flights if they’ve decided not to travel but were unable to reach WestJet over the phone.
(I currently have a set of WestJet flights booked for this weekend which I will be cancelling, but will probably be making use of the feature to request credit for a no-show, in light of the long wait times.)
Both airlines have stated that they are likely to issue significant layoffs as a cost-cutting measure, and that they will ask employees to consider voluntary leaves or early retirement as a preliminary measure before being forced to layoff workers.
All of the airlines’ other operations will take a backseat during these times, and there will unquestionably be impacts to many of the loyalty and passenger experience improvements that Canada’s two largest airlines will have planned for this year – whether it’s Air Canada’s new loyalty program launch or its rollout of brand-new Airbus A220s, or WestJet’s strengthening of its long-haul route network or the launch of its first flagship airport lounge in Calgary.
Speaking to Air Canada representatives as recently as last week, they had expressed confidence that the timeline for the new loyalty program’s launch would remain as planned at Quarter 3 of 2020, but given the challenging external environment in which the aviation industry is embroiled, not to mention the reduced productivity across all industries in this period of social distancing and economic slowdown, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if we were to see delays along the process.
Porter Airlines Suspends Operations Until June
Porter is based out of Toronto Billy Bishop Airport and operates a modest route network across the Canadian and US East Coast using a fleet of turboprop aircraft. With the border restrictions in place and domestic travel grinding to a halt as well, Porter has virtually no reason to keep operating flights, and so have decided to suspend their operations as of Friday, March 20.
Porter will be waiving all change or cancellation fees to assist passengers that might need to return home on short notice. It hopes to restart operations on June 1, although I imagine this date will be subject to change based on the conditions at the time.
To support public health efforts, we are temporarily suspending operations at the end of the day on Friday, March 20, with plans to resume service on Monday, June 1. Read more: https://t.co/BIh33Y73Eg.
— Porter Airlines (@porterairlines) March 18, 2020
With no flights operating, the airline has also had to issue “many temporary layoffs across all areas of the business,” although they “intend to welcome back all of our team members to Porter as operations restart”, and will be supporting laid-off employees with an assistance program in the interim.
I personally know a handful of Porter employees who will be impacted, and it’s fair to say that the situation is looking bleak for all parties involved.
In addition to Porter, two of Canada’s other international airlines, Sunwing Airlines and Air Transat, have also announced a gradual suspension in services once they complete their repatriation operations on behalf of the Canadian government. One can only hope that their sooner target dates for relaunching operations – April 10 and April 30, respectively – are not overly ambitious.
Canadian Aviation Requests Federal Assistance
Unsurprisingly, both the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents the nation’s largest carriers and includes Air Canada, WestJet, and Air Transat, as well as the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), which represents all of the smaller stakeholders in the aviation industry and includes Sunwing, Porter, and a number of smaller regional carriers, have written to the Prime Minister’s office to request financial aid from the government during these trying times.
Despite publicly expressing confidence that it has sufficient liquid reserves to navigate this crisis, Air Canada has also signed a joint open letter with its fellow Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam airlines to urge all governments around the world “to evaluate all possible means to assist the airline industry during this unprecedented period.”
It’s becoming clear that the recent never-before-seen turn of events could well pose a threat to the aviation world order, and that government assistance will be wholly necessary for airlines to survive. Indeed, the Centre for Aviation, an industry observer, recently assessed that “by the end of May 2020, most airlines in the world will be bankrupt” if the current state of affairs were to continue.
It’s my view that most governments around the world will be doing whatever it takes to prop up one or maybe two of their national airlines – after all, people will still need to travel when COVID-19 has passed us by, whenever that may be. Air Canada, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific – as precarious as their financial positions may get, they’ll always be “too big to fail” as a key part of the national industry, even if the federal assistance has to come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
Smaller carriers like Sunwing and Porter and their counterparts around the world, however, face a much more clear and present existential threat, and will surely need to rely on world governments stepping up with assistance measures to get them through. Sadly, I’d fully expect there to be a sobering list of casualties in the global aviation space once this all blows over.
It’s a deeply troubling time for all those involved in aviation and travel, and our nation’s airlines are definitely feeling the crunch of the government’s (wholly necessary) containment measures in closing down our borders amidst the pandemic.
With Air Canada and WestJet drastically scaling back services and Porter, Transat, and Sunwing temporarily suspending operations, it’s anyone’s guess what the Canadian aviation landscape will look like once we emerge from this industry crisis.