Flights to Mexico and the Caribbean will grind to a halt on Sunday as the federal government and airlines announced a deal to suspend flights to the sun destinations until April 30.
The airlines will co-ordinate return flights with travelers currently abroad, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a news conference on Friday.
In the coming weeks, the federal government will also introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing upon arrival at airports, and this will be on top of the pre-boarding requirement for a negative COVID-19 test, Mr. Trudeau said.
Following the second test, travelers will have to wait three days at a designated hotel for their test results. Mr. Trudeau said the hotel stays will cost travelers more than $2,000. If the traveler’s second test is negative, they will be able to complete their 14-day quarantine at home “under significantly increased surveillance and enforcement.”
If travelers test positive, however, they will have to complete their 14-day quarantine in a designated government facility to make sure they’re not carrying variants of “particular concern,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The government is hoping the changes will deter sun-seekers and slow the spread of new, more dangerous coronavirus variants. The heightened concern is supported by epidemiological models from scientists at Simon Fraser University, which project daily case counts could far outpace the records set in the current wave of the pandemic if a new variant takes hold in the general population.
Mr. Trudeau said non-essential travelers entering Canada at a land border will soon have to show a negative COVID-19 test before entering and more testing requirements will be announced in the coming weeks.
The winter break season is usually a key market for Canadian carriers. WestJet, Air Canada, Sunwing, and Transat all fly to beach resorts in Mexico, Cuba, and other tropical resorts.
Mr. Trudeau made no announcement on the long-awaited federal aid the aviation industry has been seeking as it posts billions of dollars in losses and lays off thousands of people. Talks, he said, are “ongoing.”
“We need to have a healthy, successful, and competitive airline industry once we get through this pandemic,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Now is not the time to fly, and we will be continuing to work with the airline companies to ensure that the airline industry is healthy after this pandemic.”
WestJet said on Friday it will cease flying to 14 destinations in response to the government’s request. Over the next two weeks, the airline will fly home Canadians who are already abroad in Mexico and the Caribbean.
For Montreal-based Transat AT Inc. and Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines, sun destinations comprise almost their entire schedules in February. Air Transat has 131 flights, including return trips, on its schedule for the month, and all but a few are to Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, according to aviation consultancy Cirium. Sunwing’s February schedule has 379 flights as of midday on Friday, almost all of which are to and from Mexico and Caribbean destinations, according to Cirium.
The changes follow weeks of warnings from Mr. Trudeau that stricter travel measures were forthcoming. Experts have said the best time to impose these types of measures was months ago.
The federal government has been under intense pressure from provincial and territorial premiers to further shut the border. Quebec Premier François Legault has called for some of the toughest measures, including a total ban on non-essential travel – and failing that, the mandatory hotel quarantines. There was an intense debate within the federal cabinet on how far to go on border controls and how to implement any new rules.
On Monday, The Globe reported there was concern over the logistical challenges of setting up hotel quarantines for all returning travelers.
Canada’s borders have been closed to most non-citizens and non-permanent residents since March, but there are several exceptions to the rule. Other than essential workers, such as truck drivers, everyone crossing into Canada must isolate for 14 days. However, until now that rule has had little enforcement, and anonymous cellphone data collected by Ontario shows it wasn’t being strictly followed.
As of Jan. 7, anyone returning to Canada must have proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they will be allowed to board the flight.
Canada’s move comes months after similar decisions from Australia and New Zealand – two countries that have been much more successful at controlling the spread of COVID-19. Australia implemented the mandatory hotel quarantines last March; New Zealand followed suit in August.
In New Zealand, travellers must pay for the hotel stay themselves, with some exceptions. The country requires travellers to book a room in a designated facility before travelling – those spots are booked solid until April 1, according to the government website.
The federal government briefed the travel industry on the new changes this morning.
John Gradek, an aviation leadership lecturer at McGill University, said the new restrictions will be “absolutely devastating” for the airline industry. He predicted another round of layoffs, noting route eliminations and flight cancellations will follow.
“It’s another nail into the sarcophagus,” Mr. Gradek said. “The airline industry really has been trying as best it can to put bums in seats over the last month, notwithstanding the government’s recommendation not to fly. The airlines need people to fly. They need some revenue to cover even the barest of costs, and this will really put the kibosh on demand.”
Mr. Gradek said limited hotel space raises questions about how Canada will accommodate incoming passengers. This signals a need to perhaps limit the number of people who are allowed to arrive at a time, he said.
“A [Boeing] 777 comes in, and you’re done. Next, give me another hotel,” he said.
On Jan. 27, the United Kingdom began requiring British citizens arriving from 22 countries deemed high-risk, including South Africa, Brazil, and other South American countries, to self-isolate at a hotel for 10 days at their own expense.