Tuesday,  January 19, 2021  3:31 am

Stranded passengers, no-shows: airlines face challenges on day one of COVID testing rule

Stranded passengers, no-shows: airlines face challenges on day one of COVID testing rule
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 DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Canada’s airlines went into overdrive on Thursday (Jan. 7) as they scrambled to assist travellers abroad who were denied boarding for not meeting the Government of Canada’s new pre-departure COVID-19 testing rule, which launched that same day.

WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell called it a “very busy day” as the airline, like all travel companies in Canada, had just one week to prepare for Ottawa’s new requirement that all international passengers entering Canada have a negative PCR test result 72 hours prior to arrival.

The new restriction was officially announced on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31).

“…Our teams are doing everything they can to assist guests and problem-solve in destinations across our network,” Bell wrote PAX in an email on Friday (Jan. 8). “They worked hard to prepare as best they could.”

“Understandably, there are questions and confusion including additional volume to our contact centre since it was announced.”

As per the new order, Canada-bound travellers must show proof of a negative molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) test to their airline prior to boarding.

READ MORE: What happens if I can't get a test in destination? Transport Canada answers your questions

“Failure to do so will mean an automatic denial of boarding by the airline operating the flight to Canada,” reads a statement on the Government of Canada’s website.

Some WestJet passengers were turned away as a result of having improper tests, confirmed Bell.

“Some [tests] were antigen or antibody and not admissible as per the [Interim Order],” she said, adding how some passengers showed up to the airport without a test or with one that was outside the required timeframe.

There were no other issues with guests who boarded, said Bell, with many presenting the correct test.

As of Friday morning, WestJet’s count of denied passengers for Jan. 7 included ten for Cancun-Calgary, four for Maui-Calgary, three for Vegas-Calgary, totalling 17.

Bell told PAX that WestJet’s team on the ground has rebooked the affected guests and is assisting with finding eligible tests whenever possible to ensure they can return to Canada at a later date.

“This situation further highlights the challenges travellers and our operations are facing,” said Bell.

The update comes on the same day it was announced that WestJet will be slashing its network and workforce as it faces volatile demand and instability in the face of Canada’s strict travel advisories and restrictions.

READ MORE: COVID testing rule forces WestJet to reduce network, workforce; cuts 230+ weekly departures

In addition to 1,000 employees being impacted, the drop in passenger demand due to Canada's new rule will remove around 30 per cent of WestJet’s capacity from its schedule for February and March, a more than 80 per cent reduction year over year.

Several no-shows

At Transat, a total of ten passengers were denied boarding on Jan. 7 for not having a PCR test, confirmed Debbie Cabana, marketing director, social media and public relations. 

“Luckily enough, crisis management is one of Transat’s strengths and our teams have been doing their utmost, with the support of our partners and local authorities, to limit the inconvenience for our clients,” Cabana wrote PAX in an email.

Transat had three northbound flights on Thursday from Holguin, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, Cabana said, and the passengers that were turned away were flight-only customers. (“We had no way to communicate with them,” said Cabana).

All international passengers entering Canada must have a negative PCR test result 72 hours prior to arrival.

In addition, for the three flights, “we observed a significant number of no-shows, which we cannot explain with certainty,” said Cabana, noting how Transat will follow the situation closely in the coming days.

“We are tackling the issues destination after destination, flight after flight,” she said. “Our teams are doing a wonderful job, and I think we will avoid the worst.”

“But there will be some stranded passengers, unfortunately – a little bit more heads-up and cooperation may have helped prevent this.”

Rebooking passengers

As of Friday morning, Air Canada couldn’t confirm the total number of passengers that were denied boarding yesterday due to the new regulations.

But in an email, company spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said that “overall, the operation ran well.”

“As expected, we experienced some challenges with customers who did not meet the new government testing requirements,” Fitzpatrick wrote.

READ MORE: "Callous and impractical": IATA blasts Canada's new COVID-19 testing requirement

“Our agents worked diligently to help affected customers obtain the necessary tests to meet the new rules and rebooked them at no cost so they can travel as soon as possible.”

In a statement to PAX on Friday, Sunwing spokesperson Melanie Filipp reiterated that it is "the traveller’s sole responsibility" to ensure they have the proper documentation to board their flight.  

 It is the traveller’s sole responsibility to ensure they have the proper documentation to board, says Sunwing.

"While Sunwing representatives are an invaluable resource and will make every effort to assist customers with navigating these new testing requirements, it is the traveller’s sole responsibility to ensure they obtain valid proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test result within 72 hours of their scheduled flight departure," she said. "Those travellers who do not meet this requirement and are denied boarding will be responsible for all expenses related to booking new air seats, accommodation and meal costs." 

"While Sunwing may assist with arranging flights, accommodation and transfers, any expenses incurred are the customer's responsibility."

Limited-time exceptions to rules

In a Dec. 31 statement, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Canada’s new travel measure “will provide another layer of protection for Canadians as we continue to assess public health risks and work to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has blasted Canada’s decision, calling it “callous and impractical” given the evidence that exists around testing as a suitable replacement for quarantine measures.

READ MORE: Unrealistic & disastrous”: Canada's travel industry reacts to new COVID-19 testing rules for air travellers

Federal officials have offered some limited-time exceptions to the rules as destinations adjust.  

Travellers departing from the Caribbean or South America, for instance, can use tests conducted within 96 hours of departure (instead of 72 hours) until Jan. 14, 2021,

Additionally: travellers departing from Saint Pierre et Miquelon are exempt from the requirement until Jan.14, and travellers departing from Haiti, until Jan. 21, 2021.

Canada’s ban on flights to the United Kingdom was lifted this week due to the new testing protocol. 

Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today