Canada's Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said on Sunday (Nov. 8) that Ottawa's future support for the airline industry is contingent on passengers receiving refunds for cancelled travel.
"...We have heard from many Canadians who have been negatively affected," Garneau said in a statement. "When this unprecedented pandemic broke out in the spring, Canadians who had already booked travel ended up stuck with vouchers for trips they could not take instead of getting refunds. They found themselves in a situation where they have given thousands of dollars in interest-free loans to airlines."
The Minister said that the Government of Canada is currently developing a package of assistance to Canadian airlines, airports and the aerospace sector.
"As part of this package, we are ready to establish a process with major airlines regarding financial assistance which could include loans and potentially other support to secure important results for Canadians," he said.
Garneau said Ottawa will begin discussions with airlines this week.
Refunds first, though
However: "Before we spend one penny of taxpayer money on airlines, we will ensure Canadians get their refunds," said Garneau.
The Minster acknowledged that Canada's air sector "cannot respond to these challenges on its own, given the unprecedented impacts on its operations."
"A strong and competitive air transport industry is vital for Canada's economy and the well-being of Canadians," he said. "Due to our vast geography, Canadians rely more heavily on air travel than other countries," he said.
He also acknowledged that the air sector has been hit harder during the pandemic, resulting in a "delayed and slow recovery."
"We have heard from Canadians in the air travel and related industries who have lost their jobs or fear for their job security. We have heard from Canadians who have lost air service to their regional communities," he said.
"Canadians are rightly angered by these developments."
Garneau also said Ottawa will ensure Canadians and regional communities retain air connections to the rest of Canada, and that Canadian air carriers maintain their status as key customers of Canada's aerospace industry.
"Any assistance the Government of Canada provides will come with strict conditions to protect Canadians and the public interest," he said.
WestJet issues statement
WestJet has issued a statement in response to Minister Garneau's remarks:
"We will evaluate this afternoon's statement from the Government of Canada and will await greater clarity on what support for the aviation sector might include," the airline said. "As we determine how to proceed in the best interests of our guests, our people and the communities we serve, we won't be making any further comment."
A national call for rapid testing
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who was instrumental in securing Alberta's COVID rapid testing pilot project, voiced his support for Canada's airlines in the wake of Garneau's comments.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions have had a devastating impact on airlines," Kenney said in a statement. "Across the country, we have seen ridership plummet, national carriers shut down routes, and international flights have crawled to a standstill. Here in Alberta, the impacts have been felt disproportionately given that we are home to WestJet’s head office, one of our most important employers."
Kenney called on Ottawa to introduce a national plan for rapid testing at airports to reduce the 14-day quarantine times for travellers.
“Alberta’s government encourages the Government of Canada to develop a national framework to reduce quarantine times for international travellers, as we have done successfully with the international travel pilot program at the Calgary International Airport and Coutts border crossing," he said. "Airlines have demonstrated that Canadians can travel safely. Canada’s government should work with the provinces to ensure that Canadians can support this critical sector, and the tourism industry which is also impacted by declining passenger volumes."
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