“The work on restarting the travel sector has started,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said on Tuesday (May 11), addressing media after announcing just over $740M in federal relief for Canada’s airports.
The restart of travel will be “gradual and safe,” the Minister said as he unveiled financial support programs that are designed to help airports recover from the impact of COVID-19.
He stressed the importance of having a resilient aviation industry with restored connections to communities across the country.
But Mr. Alghabra couldn't provide a timeline for when the travel sector could restart and, instead, reiterated Ottawa’s message of avoiding non-essential travel as provinces grapple with third waves of COVID-19.
“I can’t give you a time when we’re going to start seeing a gradual reopening because it will continue to be guided by public health measures and advice,” he said, “but we’re doing all the preparatory work for that.”
Standardizing and coordinating an approach to vaccine passports with "likeminded countries,” for example, is one initiative in the works, the Minister said.
Canada’s travel restrictions are temporary, but won’t be lifted all at once either, he noted.
“We’re not going to wake up one day and see the elimination of the entire set of layers [of restrictions] that we’ve implemented,” he said. “We’re going to see a gradual easing of these measures.”
Frustration & anxiety
This is likely not the answer Canada’s aviation sector, which, in addition to travel advisor communities, has long been calling for a restart plan, wants to hear.
During the fall months of 2020, aviation workers held rallies in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver to demand concrete action from the federal government to safely restart Canada's aviation and travel industry.
While Ottawa has negotiated important agreements with select airlines (Air Canada and Transat) for federal funding, which will provide refunds to customers and protect travel agent commissions, a concrete roadmap to recovery for aviation and the travel sector at large has yet to be seen.
“I know it’s frustrating for many industry players and operators,” Alghabra offered. “I understand the anxiety and sense of urgency. We want to restart…We are working with stakeholders in the sector on what that’s going to look like.”
The Minister added that he doesn’t want to “raise anyone’s expectations and have someone in the sector start selling tickets” when Canada doesn’t have measures in place yet.
“The timing depends on public health conditions in different regions and across the entire country,” Alghabra said.
Turning a “massive corner?”
The tone in Ottawa right now is that Canada is on the brink of making progress in its return to some sense of normalcy.
According to federal data, 40 per cent of the Canadian adult population, as of May 1, has had one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are turning a massive corner,” Minister Alghabra said in this regard, noting the “millions of vaccines” arriving in Canada by the week.
Addressing media that same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged provinces to maintain strict measures until COVID-19 case counts are lower so Canadians can enjoy a "one-dose summer."
Referring to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Trudeau said provinces should begin to ease restrictions only once 75 per cent of the adult population has had at least one vaccine dose.
Some provinces are expected to achieve that by Canada Day – just as long as Canadians are willing to get their shots.
A “one-dose summer” could be followed by a "two-dose fall" when more vaccines are available, Trudeau said.
Money for airports
Ottawa, meanwhile, unveiled two new funding programs to help Canada's struggling airports on Tuesday.
The Airport Critical Infrastructure Program (ACIP) will provide close to $490M to financially assist Canada's larger airports with investments in critical infrastructure-related to safety, security or connectivity.
The Airport Relief Fund (ARF) is a new program providing almost $65M in financial relief to targeted Canadian airports to help maintain operations.
Minister Alghabra also added that Transport Canada's Airports Capital Assistance Program (ACAP) is receiving a funding top-up of $186 million over two years.
Originally announced in the Fall Economic Statement, the programs will “help ensure our airports continue to provide Canadians with safe, reliable and efficient travel options,” Alghabra said.
“They will also help Canada work towards economic recovery as we move towards the gradual return of travel when it’s safe to do so.”
The news was announced after Vancouver International Airport (YVR), last week, reported a $380M loss for the 2020 financial year.
In March, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) reported that Toronto Pearson airport (YYZ) lost $383M in 2020 due to a dramatic drop in passenger numbers.
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