Wednesday,  April 21, 2021  3:49 am

“Aviation in crisis”: New Transport Minister Omar Alghabra steps into hornet’s nest of unresolved issues

“Aviation in crisis”: New Transport Minister Omar Alghabra steps into hornet’s nest of unresolved issues
Canada’s new Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

After just 30 minutes of being sworn in as Canada’s new Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, was already being grilled by media about the pending Air Canada-Transat deal.

At a press conference held Tuesday morning (Jan. 12), where ministers discussed their new roles following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet shuffle, Minister Alghabra said his aim is to "not delay anything” in closing Air Canada’s $190 million-dollar transaction with Montreal-based Transat AT.

“We need to be diligent, thoughtful and considerate,” said Minister Alghabra, who steps into the role previously held by Marc Garneau. “A lot of work has been done by Minister Garneau and I’m looking forward to building on that work.”

“I understand how important this file is and will deal with it with the sense of urgency it deserves.”

Canada’s new Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra addresses media at a virtual press conference on Tuesday (Jan. 12).

At one point, a reporter asked Minister Alghabra if he will be able to close the deal by Feb. 15 when Air Canada President and CEO Calin Rovinescu is set to retire.

“It is an important question,” said Alghabra, saying that he needed “a couple of more days” to delve into the files.

“I understand and appreciate the sense of urgency. I will get to work as quickly as we wrap up this conference,” he said.

READ MORE: With unfinished business, Garneau is out as Transport Minister in cabinet shuffle

Prior to being appointed to Transport, Alghabr served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Civil Service Renewal) and Deputy Prime Minister.

A mechanical engineer by training, Alghabr, according to his online bio, is a long-time community activist who is passionate about working with local organizations and has published extensively in the Toronto Star and Huffington Post. 

Unfinished business

Minister Garneau leaves Canada’s Transport File and takes on the role of Foreign Affairs Minister, which was previously led by François-Philippe Champagne.

Garneau’s legacy, in the eyes of some travel and aviation professionals, is a portfolio of unfinished business, including a yet-to-been-seen plan for unveiling sector-specific support for Canada’s ailing aviation industry.  

In November 2020, Garneau, notably, said Ottawa's future support for the airline industry is contingent on passengers receiving refunds for cancelled travel – a move that could recall up to $200 million dollars in commission from travel agent communities unless protections are part of the deal.

A solution to this high-stake dispute has yet to be seen. 

In the fall, Garneau was targeted on signs held by aviation workers at public protests in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, where out-of-work pilots, flight attendants, plane mechanics and others demanded measures from the Liberal government for a safe reopening of air travel.

Aviation workers protest over the government's lack of action to save Canada's aviation sector amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (PAX Global Media)

One of the lead organizers of those demonstrations, Lisa Kampis, a flight director at Air Transat and vice-president of Locale 4041, told PAX that her hope is that Canada's new Transport Minister will act sooner, rather than later, in saving Canada's aviation sector. 

"Tens of thousands have lost their jobs," Kampis wrote PAX in an email on Tuesday. "As safety specialists, communication is key to helping restore calm.  Marc Garneau failed spectacularly in this respect. Our hope is that the new Transport Minister will move rapidly to save our sector. It’s reached beyond a critical juncture."

Members of the Facebook group “Aviation workers made redundant in Canada by the COVID-19 crisis” have long criticized Garneau for stalling on a plan to help Canadian aviation during the coronavirus crisis.

Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents Canada’s largest national and international carriers (Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation and WestJet, issued a statement on Tuesday, welcoming Minister Alghabr to his new portfolio.

“Decisions made by the federal government in the coming weeks and months will directly and forcefully impact the future of Canadian aviation, the future of our employees, and the future of the communities we serve,” said McNaney.

READ MORE: “Save Canadian aviation!” Airline & travel workers march in Ottawa, demand action

Some of Garneau’s most high-profile files over the past year, in addition to the sale of Transat AT to Air Canada, included the unrolling of mandatory COVID-prevention measures at airports and on airplanes, the implementation of travel restrictions, the suspension of cruise ships from Canadian waters and passenger’s rights (refunds for cancelled air travel, in particular).

Aviation workers march in Ottawa last October, calling on the government for a safe reopening of air travel. (Pax Global Media)

Mr. Garneau’s most latest initiative was the unveiling of a new requirement that all international passengers coming to Canada have a negative PCR test result 72 hours prior to arrival – a controversial policy that has generated its share of criticism within travel circles. 

“Aviation is in crisis”

While McNaney wished he could welcome Minister Alghabra “under less dramatic circumstances," he noted how Canadian aviation is “in crisis.”

“We are losing connectivity and service to communities across Canada at a rate that threatens to unwind billions of dollars in investment made over the past ten years that has supported hundreds of thousands of jobs, and driven a level of connectivity and service that underpinned economic growth in every region of Canada,” said McNaney. “Canada’s major airlines are still operating without sector-specific aid and are consequently losing market share to foreign competitors who have received strong sectoral support from their governments.”

McNaney noted how “tens of thousands” of aviation employees have lost their jobs, billions of dollars in aircraft are parked and out of operation, and market capacity has been reduced by more than 80 per cent as carriers “struggle to provide some level of service, and yet maintain financial viability.”

McNaney said the NACC is committed to working with Minister Alghabra for the on-going safe restart of aviation, building on measures taken by countries around the world in particular the utilization of a robust COVID-19 testing strategy tied to quarantine and border measures.

Addressing media on Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke highly of Minister Alghabra, calling him a “very hard worker” who will “do a good job” on Canada’s Transport file.

“I’ve known Omar for a very long time, from my very beginning in politics…I know he will do an outstanding job,” Trudeau told reporters.

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