I call this meeting to order.
Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 29 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. Pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. At the bottom of your screen, you have the choice of floor, English or French. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need to also switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching languages.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, except during questions. The questioners will indicate to whom a given question is directed. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair, and that when you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I'd like to welcome our first panel of witnesses.
We have, from Transport Canada, Mr. Kevin Brosseau, assistant deputy minister, safety and security; Mr. Lawrence Hanson, assistant deputy minister, policy; Ms. Wendy Nixon, director general, aviation security; and, Mr. Nicholas Robinson, director general, civil aviation.
We will go now to statements from the panel.
Transport Canada, you have a 10-minute statement. Please go ahead.
Thank you to the committee for inviting us here today.
I'd like to begin by recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented global crisis that is significantly impacting all aspects of the Canadian transportation industry—travellers, shippers and our economy. During these times, Transport Canada's highest priority is the safety and security of Canadians and the transportation system. This means protecting passenger and crew health and safety as well as ensuring the continued flow of the food and supplies that Canadians need to remain healthy.
That is why, since the earliest stages of the pandemic, Transport Canada has worked hard to introduce a range of layered measures, guidance and requirements to ensure that transportation operations remain safe for workers and passengers. The department's work is informed by the latest science and data as well as the guidance of public health officials and agencies. The has also exercised his authority to enact measures under several pieces of legislation, including the Canada Marine Act, the Aeronautics Act and the Canada Shipping Act, in the face of this extraordinary situation.
I would like to outline some of the actions taken to date.
The close confines of cruise ships were identified early on as high-risk for spread of the disease. On March 13 the minister announced that the Government of Canada intended to postpone the start of the cruise ship season until at least the end of October. In addition, he also prohibited all Canadian Arctic stops for the entire season.
Even as the government restricted non-essential travel, we worked to help keep the air and marine sectors moving safely and to ensure that supply chains were not disrupted. That is why the government announced, on March 16 and 17, general extensions for some marine personnel certificates and aviation medical certificates.
On March 17 the minister also issued an interim order requiring Canadian air operators to conduct a health check of all air passengers travelling to Canada from international locations. Operators must now deny boarding to any traveller with COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of citizenship. That same day, the minister waived the requirement for ferry operators to make passengers leave their vehicles while on board during the crisis. In the interest of promoting physical distancing, passengers are now allowed to remain in their cars as long as operators put extra safety precautions in place.
Since March 18, all international flights have been directed to only four Canadians airports— Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver—to consolidate available resources for checking international passengers.
On March 19 the issued an exemption for marine crews entering Canada, deeming them essential. This exemption ensures that food, medicine and other essential products continue to arrive safely at our ports.
On March 21 the announced that the Government of Canada was working with Canadian airlines and foreign governments to provide access to commercial flights for thousands of Canadian travellers who wanted to return home and were faced with challenging circumstances abroad. We also worked with Canadian airlines to ensure that stranded Canadians were offered a reasonable commercial price for return tickets home.
In late March the took a further step to contain the spread of the virus by requiring all air operators and intercity passenger rail companies to conduct a health check of travellers. They must perform this check on travellers before they board a flight or intercity train in Canada and deny boarding to those with visible signs of the illness.
In early April Transport Canada introduced guidelines to help keep commercial vehicle drivers safe as they carry out their essential work. The department worked with other federal departments, industry representatives and unions to develop the guidelines. A few days later, the department issued guidance allowing commercial drivers to move freely across provincial and territorial borders.
On April 5 several mandatory requirements for commercial marine vessels carrying more than 12 passengers were introduced. Among other changes, these operators were prohibited from engaging in non-essential activities, such as tourism or recreation, and these measures were updated at the end of May. The minister also prohibited Canadian cruise ships from mooring, navigating or transiting in Canadian Arctic waters. Any foreign passenger vessel wishing to enter Canadian Arctic waters must first obtain permission and agree to conditions to protect marine personnel and local communities.
Under these changes, ferries and other essential passenger vessels can continue to operate, but at half their maximum capacity, or introduce other practices that align with Public Health Agency of Canada guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
This could include keeping people in their vehicles, when feasible, or enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures.
In addition, to better protect employees and passengers, Transport Canada issued guidelines to ferry operators similar to those for air and intercity rail passengers. Ferry operators must now screen passengers for signs of COVID-19 before boarding, and deny boarding to anybody showing signs of the illness.
As I mentioned, the safety and security of Canadians and the transportation system remain our top priority. That’s why, effective April 20, it was announced that all air travellers must wear a non-medical mask or face covering over their mouth and nose when going through security, when boarding and when on the plane when physical distancing guidelines cannot be maintained. Air passengers on flights to or from Canadian airports must show that they have the necessary non-medical mask or face covering at boarding or they will not be allowed to board the plane. In addition, we have encouraged anyone travelling by train, boat, bus or ferry to also wear face coverings whenever possible.
Furthermore, the operators of ferries and essential passenger vessels now provide public messaging to travellers about the need for a face covering during their journey. The messaging stresses the need for passengers to use them to cover their mouth and nose when they cannot maintain physical distance from others.
In May, the extended the prohibition of cruise ships with overnight accommodations for more than 100 people until October 31, 2020. Those with no overnight accommodations, and those that carry fewer than 100 people overnight, are deferred until at least July 1 of this year.
Earlier this month, the minister announced the expansion of the requirements for the use of face coverings for workers and others involved in the transportation sector. Also, as of the end of June, air operators will be required to conduct temperature screenings at the point of departure for all passengers on international flights entering Canada. This will apply regardless of a passenger's point of origin.
By the end of July, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority will also be responsible for screening passengers’ temperatures as part of the departure procedures for domestic, transborder and international flights. It will also check the temperatures of airport and aviation personnel before they enter the restricted areas of airports, to help maintain a healthy and safe space for travellers and workers alike.
We acknowledge that the transportation system is vital for the restart of our economy and for our quality of life. It is vital for our safety and security. As the situation continues to evolve, Transport Canada is working closely with other levels of government and with senior transportation sector representatives to tailor our approach to protecting Canadians. We communicate daily with representatives from across federal, provincial and territorial government departments and agencies, from the private sector and labour organizations and from indigenous communities.
On behalf of Transport Canada, I'd like to take a moment to recognize and thank workers across the transportation sector. In the face of challenges, they are keeping people and goods moving, ensuring that our country remains safe for all of us. Transport Canada employees, such as on-the-ground inspectors and many others, are so very critical for getting supplies to people and sustaining the Canadian economy. We appreciate all of their efforts as they continue to work with us and for Canadians.
My colleagues and I would be happy to answer any of your questions.
Mr. Chair, I'll start with that answer, and then any of my colleagues may wish to provide additional information.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have made stakeholder engagement a critical component of our response strategy. Along with the , Transport Canada officials have made this a number one priority to ensure we are hearing directly from those in the industry and those who are most impacted by this pandemic. In doing so, we have created a robust engagement strategy that is connected with all parts of the industry.
I'll speak to a few of them for a second. We have created a forum of senior officials from major airlines and major airports to discuss the most pressing concerns related to the restart of the industry. We have co-chaired an air consultative committee that includes members from the federal government, major industry associations including the National Airlines Council of Canada, the Air Transport Association of Canada, the Northern Air Transport Association and a variety of operators, and by operators, I mean airlines and airports.
This group has been examining various aspects of the aviation industry that we need to make changes to or improve to ensure the restart of the industry is as safe as possible.
We have used our existing regulatory forums like the Canadian aviation regulation advisory council, or CARAC, to distribute almost daily messages on the actions that Transport Canada has taken to support the industry. This council has an open membership including many industry associations and a variety of operators and unions representing aviation workers. We have also established several special COVID consultative mechanisms that have been stood up to engage industry in response to COVID-19. They cover a full range of operators, both domestic and foreign airlines, and airports and unions representing the aviation workers, for example, flight attendants, pilots and CATSA screeners. All these engagements with the industry partners take place on a weekly basis right now, but we were meeting more frequently at the beginning of this crisis. They have been instrumental in the development of a dozen or so measures we have put in place in the air sector to ensure it can operate safely.
The and Transport Canada are also continuing extensive bilateral engagement on an ongoing basis with key aviation partners in all regions in Canada.
This work has been essential to ensure the actions that have been taken to assist the industry as well as hear directly from stakeholders on the ongoing and emerging challenges of the pandemic.
We will resume the meeting.
Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 29 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. We are working pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020. We are resuming our briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the new witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, except that, during questioning, the questioners typically indicate to whom they are addressing their questions. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I remind everyone that all comments should be addressed to the chair. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of floor, English or French. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need also to switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you're speaking. You want to allow for a short pause when you're switching languages. When you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I'd like to welcome our second panel of witnesses.
From Air Canada we have Mr. Ferio Pugliese, senior vice-president, Air Canada Express and government relations; and Dr. Jim Chung, chief medical officer.
From Air Transat we have Mr. Howard Liebman, senior director, government and community affairs; and Captain Dave Bourdages, vice-president, in-flight service and customer experience.
From WestJet we have Jared Mikoch-Gerke, manager, aviation and security.
We will start with statements. Each group will have 10 minutes to make a statement.
Air Canada, we will start with you. You have 10 minutes. Go ahead, please.
Good afternoon, Chair and members of the standing committee. Thanks for allowing us the opportunity to be here this afternoon with you. Given this is the Standing Committee on Health, I trust everyone is well and safe.
My name is Ferio Pugliese. I am the senior vice-president of government relations and Air Canada Express at Air Canada. I am pleased to join you here to discuss the Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am joined by my colleague, Dr. Jim Chung, who is Air Canada’s chief medical officer. He and I will try to divide our time with opening remarks and then be available to answer your questions.
As we all know, the impact of the pandemic has been unprecedented. Not only has this novel disease negatively affected the health of individuals, cities and countries, it has also ground economies to a halt, undermined trade relationships, closed borders and reduced passenger travel between countries in a way that many of us never thought possible. At this stage, Air Canada has had a front row seat in all of this.
As Air Canada followed the disease in China in late 2019 and early 2020, we began to see travel demand between the two countries drop significantly. This forced us to cut back service to China at a significant cost. In fact, we were one of the first North American airlines to do so. Continued monitoring of the World Health Organization’s daily reports and those of our health partner BlueDot made us realize that the situation was more dire than many cared to admit.
As cases of COVID-19 began to appear outside China and with little information about the nature of the disease, Air Canada’s executive team made the decision to cease all operations to China, following a travel advisory issued by the Government of Canada. This took place on January 29, 2020, one full day before the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, and well before the WHO declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. It's important to note that Chinese carriers continued to operate to Canada during this period.
Over the course of February, we saw air travel demand drop by even larger numbers, with cancellations of existing bookings increasing in lockstep. Our sector was unique in that we were witnessing and feeling the economic impact ahead of almost any other industry or sector, except for maybe hotels and tour operators, and well before the pandemic declaration.
In addition to this fear-induced drop in demand, governments around the world began to impose travel restrictions and border closures that would physically limit travel options. By mid-March, easily one of the busiest air travel periods of the year, our operations were a fraction of what they had been the year prior, and worse, domestic and international advance bookings were almost zero.
Sadly, after 10 years of growth and recognition as one of the best airlines in the world, Air Canada was reduced to 5% of operations year over year, essentially a 95% reduction. As a result, we made the difficult but necessary choice to lay off over 20,000 employees, more than 50% of our workforce, and reduce our global network from 220 destinations to 46.
Given that Canadian border restrictions and quarantine policies remain in place, there is little hope of a near-term recovery, although we are taking steps to rebuild our network and continue to lobby to lift these restrictions.
Even as our day-to-day operations were being scaled back, we took steps to assist in the national effort to combat the crisis by doing what we do best: fly people and cargo. In March and April, in collaboration with Global Affairs Canada, we repatriated more than 300,000 Canadians through our regularly scheduled flights and specially arranged repatriation flights. In total, we operated 21 dedicated repatriation flights. Our crews deserve our thanks.
To quote , “Air Canada played a vital role in bringing thousands of our fellow Canadians home." I want to thank them on the public record for their tireless effort, compassion, dedication and professionalism during these demanding missions.
In addition to repatriating Canadians, Air Canada took steps to scale our cargo operations and assist in strengthening the supply chain to secure equipment for the health network.
Since the end of March, we have operated more than 1,500 of these cargo-only flights and transported hundreds of tonnes of medical equipment. It is important to note that cargo also plays a critical role in the global economy and our own national economy.
At this stage, Air Canada is in recovery mode. We're learning how to deal with this disease. We are not only taking steps to address COVID-19 concerns, but also working with domestic and international partners to ensure that air travel continues to be a safe alternative for travel. In conjunction with world health organizations and authorities, many countries like France, Germany, Portugal, Japan and Australia are now implementing plans to reopen borders to bring back trade and tourism to their economies.
Air Canada alone contributes $50 billion to the Canadian economy through these activities, to say nothing of the entities in the supply chain. Canada, we believe, now needs to work with stakeholders to urgently take steps to reopen its borders, ease travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, both domestically and internationally, in a very measured and prudent fashion. Otherwise, our sector and the Canadian economy would suffer far longer than they need to.
I will stop my remarks there and turn the floor over to my colleague, Dr. Jim Chung.
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak on perhaps the most defining health issue of our lifetime.
As Air Canada's chief medical officer, I oversee all aspects of Air Canada's health policies and from day one have been directly involved with both Air Canada and the International Air Transport Association medical advisory group's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As stated earlier, Air Canada had an early view into the pandemic and was very concerned with the trajectory of the disease in early January 2020.
This insight was partly due to our partnership with BlueDot. In April 2019, we entered into a partnership with a small Toronto-based artificial intelligence infectious disease analytics and surveillance company, because we recognized the importance of early disease surveillance and the impact it has on the aviation industry. BlueDot assists Air Canada in predicting when and what stations will be affected in any given outbreak, allowing us to plan accordingly with early warning.
With the benefit of this partnership, and in the absence of a single measure that can achieve high levels of risk reduction, Air Canada took the alternative approach of using a combination of biosafety measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, as far as practical, at the earlier stages of the pandemic. In addition to limiting travel to COVID-19 hot spots in those early stages, we focused on our front-line crew and customers. Working with our unions and crew, crew were provided with masks, and our check-in, boarding procedures and on-board service process was redesigned to reduce and minimize interaction with customers in order to reduce risk for both groups.
As the pandemic continued to spread and we realized that this was not a short-term problem, we further redesigned our customer experience to enhance our existing health systems, such as advanced HEPA filters on aircraft, which refresh air every several minutes and capture 99.9% of airborne pathogens.
In consultation with other medical experts, we introduced the Air Canada CleanCare+ program, a first of its kind in the industry and certainly in Canada. This program utilizes electrostatic sprayers; provides customers, in addition to staff, with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer in a kit; scans customers for temperature, a policy that has been recently adopted by the federal government; and further minimizes direct contact between staff and customers during the travel experience.
While no one single measure is a sure way to prevent acquiring COVID-19, the use of multiple layers of these measures certainly does reduce the probability that one might be exposed to the virus during travel.
As the world continues to adjust to the new normal, air carriers are also adopting new measures to ensure that air travel, with its benefits, can once again begin to operate safely and throughout the world. While border restrictions might have assisted efforts in containing the spread early on, both the WHO and PHAC acknowledge that it's not a guaranteed way to eliminate the risk.
Today, with a better understanding of COVID-19, we are able to better manage these risks, and we are seeing countries around the world adopt new measures and reopen their borders. Such emerging technologies include digital contact tracing, which the federal government and Ontario are soon to roll out in the form of an app, digital AI technology capturing contactless vital signs, and expanded and new testing technology. In fact, Air Canada is looking at cutting-edge Canadian technology that can screen customers for COVID-19 at airports and would further reduce the possibility that customers can spread the virus aboard aircraft.
The key to using these technologies is partnership with the federal government. The reality is that COVID-19 will continue to circulate in our communities to some degree and won't be fully controlled until a vaccine is developed and rolled out in mass quantities. I sense that there is a false belief that COVID-19 will be eradicated with current measures. It will not. We can only continue to minimize risk and cases in this environment.
Our goal should be to reopen the economy while putting in place measures to limit the spread and limit outbreaks. We are working to make air travel as safe as it can be in this environment for our customers and staff so that we can welcome Canadians back on our aircraft and help them to do business, visit friends and family and explore the corners of our country and the world.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee.
My name is Howard Liebman. I am the senior director of government and community affairs at Transat, and I represent Air Transat.
With me today to help in answering your questions is Captain Dave Bourdages, vice-president of in-flight service and customer experience at Air Transat. Captain Bourdages is our airline operational lead in dealing with the COVID-19 emergency and recovery efforts.
Transat is a leading integrated international tourism company specializing in holiday travel, founded in 1987. It offers vacation packages, hotel stays and air travel under the Transat and Air Transat brands to some 60 destinations in the Americas and Europe. Transat is firmly committed to sustainable tourism development, as reflected in its multiple corporate responsibility initiatives over the past 12 years, and was the first tour operator to be awarded Travelife certification, in 2018.
Based in Montreal, the company has approximately 5,000 employees, of which a high point of 85% were forced to be laid off as a result of the crisis. Air Transat is the second-largest operator of international passenger airline services in Canada, with a fleet of 40 large commercial airliners. Our core market and business strategy are based on a point-to-point international flight network, primarily in the leisure travel segment, and that has been decimated by the crisis.
I respectfully remind the honourable members of this committee that air transport is a vital component of our national transportation infrastructure and a locomotive for the Canadian economy. Aviation-enabled travel and tourism facilitate and support over one million jobs in every region of our country, far more than any other industry in the private sector. This critical part of our national economy has suffered the brunt of the economic harm brought on by the pandemic, and without robust government support and a focused strategy for reopening borders, it will suffer irreparable harm. In short, there is no national economic recovery without aviation and tourism actively helping to propel it forward.
I would now like to briefly share with you the details of our company's operational response to COVID-19 and the severe financial stress that the pandemic is placing on our business. I will also outline our plans going forward as we prepare for a safe, smart and measured restart.
With the onset of the pandemic in Canada in mid-March and the swift government pronouncement of international travel restrictions on non-essential travel, travel bans and quarantine measures, complemented by provincial orders closing businesses, Transat moved quickly into a repatriation operation. Air Transat flights operated during the last two weeks of March were mainly intended for the repatriation of Transat customers back to Canada or their country of origin.
While sales and revenues completely collapsed, we operated hundreds of previously scheduled and special flight segments at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, most of them departing Canada empty, ultimately repatriating some 65,000 clients home in a period of just two weeks. We also partnered with Global Affairs to operate six dedicated repatriation charter flights. Additionally, Transat donated supplies of PPE—namely, 44,000 masks and 300,000 pairs of gloves—to the Quebec government on April 2 to assist with the urgent supply needs in our communities at the time.
Unique among today's panel, Transat suspended all of our flights and operations completely as of April 1 in the face of Canadian and worldwide travel restrictions and border closures to non-essential travel, and the resulting unprecedented revenue collapse and ongoing market uncertainty, to preserve our liquidities and protect the long-term viability of our business. Ours is a highly capital- and labour-intensive industry, and our commercial planning and strategy were never intended to deal with such extreme market conditions. We were certainly not alone in this respect.
As a resilient 33-year-old company that has successfully weathered many challenges and storms in the past, we took action. In March, we drew down on a $50-million revolving credit facility. Senior executives and the board have voluntarily reduced compensation ranging from 10% to 20%. The retirement of all of our Airbus A310 aircraft from our fleet occurred in March.
As mentioned earlier, 85% of our staff had been laid off. However, on April 16, Air Transat took advantage of the emergency wage subsidy, which was extended to all of our laid-off staff. We are actively renegotiating contracts with suppliers and aircraft lessors.
As noted, the travel and tourism industry are most directly and severely impacted by the pandemic. Consequently, the UN World Tourism Organization has issued a call on governments and international organizations to include travel and tourism as a priority in recovery plans. In Canada, leading travel and tourism organizations formed the Canadian travel and tourism round table, now joined by business leaders beyond our industry, which has called on the federal and provincial governments to remove travel restrictions as soon as possible based on established safe restart and recovery protocols.
Indeed, the International Civil Aviation Organization recently published the recommendations of a special state working group, which includes Canada, that would serve as a road map for its 200 member states for the safe restart of air transportation operations worldwide. These include protocols that seek to maximize biosecurity during all aspects of the airport and air travel experience and minimize the risk of further contagion. Captain Bourdages can provide further details, as necessary.
The federal government thereafter established an interdepartmental working group of experts, led by Transport Canada, which is working with industry experts, including Canada's major airlines and airports, to incorporate these recommendations into a national plan. It's imperative that this plan be approved for implementation and that it form the basis of properly risk-managed decisions to be taken regarding the loosening of non-essential travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.
Furthermore, we are fully mindful that numerous regions of the world remain problematic in terms of their infection rate trends, and the restart must not be a facilitator for the import of this contagion into our country. This is why many countries are now actively considering the implementation of safe-to-safe air corridors based on mutually recognized and robust national restart strategies, ideally based on the ICAO harmonized principles.
We strongly urge the federal government to actively pursue a similar strategy and to immediately initiate bilateral discussions to this end with Canada's key travel country partners that have shown sustained improvement in negative infection trends, including the European Union, the U.K., Mexico and other countries of the Caribbean and Latin America that have demonstrated minimal infection rates.
Third, it is essential that consideration by cabinet regarding the removal of non-essential travel restrictions be fully integrated with the lessening of quarantine requirements, especially with safe travel corridor partner countries. Indeed, in the context of restarting and promoting visitor and tourist travel to Canada, it rapidly becomes a moot point if we continue to require self-isolation for discretionary travel. This is a particularly important point for Air Transat, as mentioned at the outset, as a leisure travel operator.
Fourth, leisure travellers will stay home if they do not have access to insurance that could cover COVID-related illness and treatment. Insurance companies in Canada are currently denying such coverage to travellers. Fortunately, it is our understanding from the insurance industry that this can be remedied by reducing or eliminating Canada's level 3 global travel advisory to avoid all non-essential travel, especially with safe corridor countries. We therefore request Global Affairs Canada to actively undertake to review and adjust its advisories accordingly, in conjunction with the above-mentioned safe restart and travel corridor strategies.
Transat is doing its part corporately as well for the health and safety concerns of our customers by creating Traveller Care, a comprehensive end-to-end program featuring enhanced health and safety measures at all points of contact.
On the basis of the above, we have cautiously proceeded to announce the gradual resumption of a small percentage of flight and tour operating activities on July 23, including service to 18 destinations in Europe and the Caribbean as well as domestic services between Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. The success of these operations will be directly dependent on expeditious government action as requested herein, which in turn will allow for even more robust services as we move through the summer and into autumn.
Thank you again for inviting me here today. Captain Bourdages and I look forward to the discussion.
Good afternoon and thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable members of this committee, for the invitation to speak with you today.
I'm here today to provide the committee with some details on the operational response to COVID-19 and share with you the safety measures we have implemented for our people and for our guests.
My name is Jared Mikoch-Gerke, and I'm the manager of aviation security for the WestJet group of companies. In my capacity, I serve as a subject matter expert on legislation and regulatory policy across our global network.
The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating effect on the global aviation sector that no country or carrier has been immune to. Prior to this crisis, WestJet had 14,000 employees operating 700-plus flights carrying roughly 70,000 guests per day throughout our growing international network.
As of today, we've had to park two-thirds of our fleet. Our workforce has been reduced by 9,000, and we are operating about 100 flights a day carrying less than 10% of the number of guests that we normally would have. We haven't flown a scheduled flight to the United States or international locations since March 23. While we believe that we have now entered what we are calling the stability phase of this crisis, we don't anticipate a true recovery to pre-COVID levels until 2022.
Later in my comments, I hope to impart some considerations for the committee on how we can collectively work together on recovery efforts.
What has been highlighted by this crisis, however, is the steadfast reminder that commercial aviation is an essential service and a crucial element of critical infrastructure, which is now more than ever important for the transportation of critical workers and goods. While we are operating a reduced schedule, we have remained committed to serving every market in Canada that we did prior to this crisis, and we have increased our cargo capacity to transport critical medical goods and PPE. Safety above all is paramount to us, and we have been unwavering in our commitment to ensuring the safety of our employees and guests during these challenging times.
We have continuously evolved our response throughout this crisis, and right from the outset we took actions to ensure that our people were protected right across the organization. At our head office here in Calgary, at the beginning of this crisis we seamlessly moved all our employees who are not operationally critical to working remotely. For those who were needed in our office space, we implemented physically spaced workstations and made available hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves and masks for all employees. We further implemented enhanced frequent cleaning of all high-touch points and fogging of our office spaces.
In our operations control centre, we have 24-7 cleaners embedded, who are continually cleaning high-touch areas and providing fresh desks for shift change. For our technical operations team, we've provided them all the necessary PPE, along with half- and full-face respirators. We implemented temperature checks for all personnel, to be recorded on arrival to work, and we require that face masks be worn when unable to socially distance during maintenance tasks. We have increased the sterilization and cleaning of all work areas and touch points.
For our airports and in-flight teams, we provided gloves, masks, disposable gowns, safety glasses, face shields and hand sanitizer. We implemented enhanced surface and lavatory cleaning on board our aircraft, and we have dedicated a lavatory for crew members where possible. We modified our crew accommodations practices and have assigned crew to in-terminal hotels, where possible, to prevent the need for transportation. In airports, we worked closely with our airport partners to ensure enhanced cleaning of any common-use areas, and we have increased our cleaning frequency of major touch-point areas of service.
To date, we have had 29 employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. We are thankful that none had serious health complications and the majority have since recovered completely.
I want to take this opportunity to provide our thanks and give enormous appreciation to all WestJet front-line workers, who have risen to the challenge and continue to provide their exemplary caring, friendly and compassionate guest service in the face of this crisis.
For our guests, we recognized right away that it is critical we make sure they feel safe when travelling with us. Regardless of why our guests are flying, whether it be reporting for work as needed or to be with a sick loved one, we exceeded the health measures recommended and, on our own accord, implemented a very rigorous and consistent approach to their health and safety.
We worked collaboratively with Transport Canada on the quick implementation of all orders in council and emergency orders for the implementation of a health questionnaire and consistent observations of any ill guests and, more recently, the requirement for guests and crew members to wear masks at all times during travel.
In addition to these requirements, we implemented seat blocking to provide social distancing on board our aircraft during the most critical months of this crisis. We enhanced the cleaning of our aircraft to include disinfection of all guest contact surfaces and included electrostatic fogging of every aircraft during overnight stops and on long turns in our hub cities.
We implemented temperature checks for all guests in alignment with the WHO standards and provided them with disinfectant wipes during boarding to allow them to personally wipe down their areas as they chose. We also modified our food and beverage service to reduce touch points by removing service on short flights and providing guests with individually packaged goods on board for longer flights, and we removed all non-essential seatback literature.
Each of our aircraft is equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters that capture over 99.99% of all contaminants, including coronaviruses, and the cabin air is fully refreshed every six minutes. We truly believe that Canadian aviation has led the way internationally in the implementation of an industry-leading biosecurity plan.
The safety of our guests and employees is without hesitation our top priority. In addition to the physical measures we have taken, we have committed to being open and transparent throughout this rapidly evolving situation. We were the only airline in Canada to publicly share, directly on our website and through our social channels, flights that were identified by the Public Health Agency of Canada as having a positive case on board. We specified the affected rows, which are considered close contact and may be at risk of exposure.
Any aircraft where an individual was identified as displaying symptoms, or that was determined to have had a positive case on board, was removed from service to have a full, detailed cleaning and disinfection, along with replacement of the HEPA filter. There has not been a single case of COVID-19 transmission on board a commercial flight. This is a true testament to the sterile environment on board aircraft and the enhanced disinfection and health measures that have been put in place since this crisis began.
The aviation industry is unbelievably resilient and adaptable. When border closures started to transpire, we were able to quickly stand down and rightsize our business for the incredible downturn that occurred. The restart and recovery, though, is much more complex and has many incumbent challenges. Our first priority was ensuring that we have consistent and scalable health measures in place to ensure the safety of our crew and our guests, which we do. We are fully compliant with the report recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization council's aviation recovery task force, or CART.
As we look towards recovery, we require the support of all levels and departments of government to utilize the measures that we have taken as part of a plan to reopen commercial aviation and reinstill consumer confidence. We need to work towards a national strategy and eliminate inconsistent provincial border restrictions to allow for the free movement of Canadians across the country.
We also believe that it is in Canada's interest to develop bilateral or multilateral agreements on sterile corridors and remove quarantine requirements on these routes. These would be routes between international locations that have done an effective job in controlling COVID-19, similar to the discussions occurring on the trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand, or what has occurred for travel within the EU.
We are confident that we are well prepared for Canadians to return to travel safely. We are now calling on government to help do so and to develop a scalable plan for reopening. As more important elements, such as effective testing and contact tracing, become available, we stand ready to assist and implement further measures that come with reduced travel restrictions as we all adapt to our new normal.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to your questions and further discussion.
I want to thank our colleagues for being here. Having had a 22-year career in aviation, it's always great to talk with fellow aviation geeks. I guess that's what we would call ourselves.
I do want to start by saying that the last few months have been extremely difficult for the airline industry. It has been incredibly difficult for me, as a former aviation executive, to sit and listen to some of the things I've been hearing. Sadly, I get the impression from some of my colleagues that they feel we can just flip a switch and our sector will rebound.
I am heartened to hear the comments such as from Howard, at Air Transat, as well as you, Jared, from WestJet. This is a vital component of our national economy. We need to do everything in our power to start looking now for a plan and to start developing that plan to reopen our doors and our borders and get our planes flying. That starts at the top.
I'm going to direct this question to Dr. Chung. I'm not sure whether you're familiar with it, but last week the responded to a question by my colleague: “Minister, would I be more or less likely to acquire coronavirus at Pearson Airport or Union Station, in your opinion?” I'll paraphrase, because the blues don't accurately capture what the minister said, but the video is clear as day.
said that in his opinion the whole airline or aviation experience—from arriving at the airport, to checking in, to boarding the aircraft, to flying and then picking up your luggage—is more dangerous, and that you're more susceptible to contract COVID.
Dr. Chung, would you agree or disagree with that?
I love travelling and I trust that in future years I will fly many times with all of your airlines. All of your companies have been extremely responsible corporate citizens, and certainly you all seem to play a role in our national response to the pandemic in repatriating people and transporting essential goods like PPE, and you all ought to be commended for this.
I also want to acknowledge the fact that you're all taking a big financial hit. I know it has been an existential threat to the airline industry, given that we practically have no one flying.
That said, Mr. Pugliese, and I think all of you have said that you have to be prudent as you reopen and start flying again, I'm thinking that we may not want to open all routes as quickly. For some routes like Toronto to Thunder Bay—and I'm the member of Parliament for Thunder Bay—Thunder Bay has very few COVID-19 cases, with maybe two cases a week, whereas metropolitan Toronto obviously has a lot more.
When the airlines were going full bore, about 1,000 people were going in and out between Thunder Bay and Toronto. Even though a lot of people in Thunder Bay have taken a big hit, such as the people who run restaurants, who have had to close down, we haven't had a hit because we haven't had that many cases. If we start opening these routes again, the hospital is potentially suddenly going to face a lot more difficulties, as will the first nations communities further up north, which are at high risk because Thunder Bay is that hub. I'm not sure we want to open Thunder Bay to Toronto.
That said, how about opening more routes between safe destinations? Places like Thunder Bay have pretty low rates; Newfoundland has fairly low rates and Manitoba and B.C. have low rates. There are currently no routes flying, for example, from Thunder Bay to St. John's or Winnipeg to St. John's. I think there was also mention made of international connections between safe destinations.
Is each airline potentially contemplating opening those kinds of routes, establishing new routes, to get going quickly?
My airline colleagues, I'll take a stab at that one first and pass it around for others' thoughts.
That's a very good question. I have a few things to say in response. First and foremost, when we refer to prudent and safe measures, it's not just about unlocking the economy and travel without having safe measures in place that do two things in particular. One, first and foremost, is to ensure the health, safety and well-being of the travelling public. We're very good at that. We're in the safety business and the risk management business. That's what we do in aviation, and I would even speak on behalf of many of our tourism colleagues and the work they do. They do the same. Health and safety is priority one, and we need to have measures in place.
The prudent measures then include our adoption of what we know are proven measures around the world today when do open up. We know that elements like PPE; social distancing, where appropriate; thermal scanning, which is now in place in airports with temperature checks; and contact tracing and even testing as technologies start to evolve, these are the things to watch. What health authorities and aviation organizations around the world are adopting for opening their economies, we, too, need to be adapting and adjusting to that in Canada. I would just say that it needs to move at a better pace than it has thus far.
That takes me to the second thing, because there are really five things that happen today that are confusing the level of travel. We have no foreign nationals allowed into the country. We have blanket advisories on avoiding travel at all costs. These have been messages that have been put out. The 14-day quarantine rules apply in some jurisdictions and not others. They apply across Canada, and we're finding that in other parts of the globe, where prudent and where they're seeing curves drop and R factors dropping, these are being lifted. We have closure of air, land, and sea borders. We also have a host of changes and some confusion across the country about what provinces we can travel to. A number of those things need to be fleshed out, but in order to do that, we're suggesting that we would come forward and put together measures, and we have safe measures to allow people to travel and transit through airports and onto the aircraft in a safe fashion.
To your other question, giving thought to and contemplating where to travel, we would be very much in support of saying no. We look at opening up international borders, transborder with the United States, and even within Canada in places we know are low risk. If we were to look at connections around the world, we might look at countries where they've seen a declining curve and where they've taken safe, prudent measures to open their economies. Why not partner with them, and why is Canada not on the list of those countries to reopen?
These are the sorts of measures and our lens as to how we would look at reopening. That's what I mean about measured and prudent.
I'll stop and allow my colleagues to comment.
Mr. Chair, thank you for the question. That is a very good question, and it does take a bit of a dissertation, so I apologize for a bit of a lengthy answer here.
In flight, the cabin air typically will be a 50-50 mix of bleed air through the engine and recirculated air through the cabin, in most aircraft. The recirculated air through the cabin goes through the high-efficiency particulate arrestor filter, which, as mentioned earlier, will filter out 99.9% of all bacteria, fungi and viruses, and it does get recirculated into the cabin.
The flow of air within the cabin itself, though, is not from front to back but side to side, essentially, so it circulates in a transverse pattern relative to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. Hence, what you will hear from public health officials when they are doing notifications is typically that they are asking for two rows, either in front of or behind the index case passenger, for any potential contact tracing on board an aircraft.
On the ground, the air is plugged into an external air-handling unit that gets plugged into the aircraft.