Airlines call on federal government to delay rollout of pre-departure COVID-19 tests

Just days before the government is set to roll out mandatory pre-departure COVID-19 testing for travellers returning to Canada, the CEOs of the country’s largest airlines are calling on Transport Minister Marc Garneau to delay the rollout until later this month, CBC News has learned.

The heads of Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing — along with two major trade associations, the International Air Transportation Association and National Airlines Council of Canada — recently sent a letter to Garneau warning him that the federal government’s timeline for implementing the testing protocol isn’t feasible.

The carriers are proposing that the new rules — due to take effect on Thursday — should instead kick in on January 18.

“Minister, we have very serious concerns about the feasibility of successfully implementing such a significant measure in the extremely short time[frame] announced, without consultation or a coordinated plan,” reads the letter to Garneau, obtained by CBC News.

The government announced the new testing regime last week, following multiple reports of Canadian politicians travelling abroad for the holidays in defiance of government advisories against non-essential travel.

The new requirements could discourage travel at a time when the airline industry is struggling with a dramatic drop in traffic. The rules that come into effect on Jan. 7 say that travellers five years of age or older must receive a negative result on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the standard nose swab test for detecting active COVID-19 infections — within 72 hours of boarding a flight to Canada.

Airlines say they weren’t consulted about the new policy before it was announced. In their letter to Garneau, they argue the new rules create a “real risk that Canadians will now be stranded abroad” and say they’ve heard from thousands of Canadians alarmed by the possibility.

“With the current timeframes and lack of clarity and detail, we must note particular concern over the very real prospect of Canadians of all ages being denied boarding and stranded at destination, in the current context of significantly reduced flight frequencies and over‐stretched airline, government and consular resources due to the pandemic,” said the letter.

Some Canadians can still board planes without COVID-19 tests

Garneau said last week, however, that if travellers can show they couldn’t obtain COVID-19 tests abroad, they can still board flights home — but they’ll need to quarantine in a federally-regulated facility in Canada.

Travellers in countries where testing is available are required to show documentation of a negative test result to airlines prior to boarding a flight to Canada, said Garneau.

In a statement today, the minister’s office reminded Canadians that travel restrictions and measures can change on short notice. The office said Garneau plans to implement the changes as planned on Jan. 7 at 12:01 am ET as an “additional layer of protection for Canadians.”

“We are reaching dangerous case numbers in areas across the country and we cannot afford to stop the important work being done to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said Garneau’s press secretary Allison St-Jean.

“Despite a challenging environment, airlines have played an important role since the beginning of the fight against COVID-19 and we are confident they will continue to do so.”

The airlines say in the letter that they were “perplexed that airline and tour operators were not consulted” first, since they’ll be expected to implement the new rules and they only have draft guidance from the federal government on how to proceed.

“Minister, at the time of writing this letter, mere days before going into force, the Interim Order elaborating the new measure has yet to be finalized and only preliminary draft guidance material is available,” says the letter. 

Transport Minister Marc Garneau is being warned by the airline industry that the federal government’s rapid introduction of airport testing risks stranding Canadians abroad. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Airline industry called for testing at Canadian airports for months

The new rules come after the airline industry spent months calling on the federal government to conduct COVID-19 testing at airports in Canada.

“… our industry has invested in and publicly advocated for rational testing protocols, such as arrival testing in Canada where the quality and consistency of testing can be properly regulated and controlled,” said the letter.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told CBC News on Dec. 30 that other provinces have spoken to the federal government about duplicating a pilot project in Alberta. The program — a partnership between Alberta and the federal government — allows eligible international travellers to take a COVID-19 test at one of two border crossings in the province: the Calgary International Airport and the Coutts land border crossing.

Travellers whose tests come back negative can leave quarantine as long as they remain in Alberta for 14 days. They also must obtain a second test six or seven days after arrival at a participating community pharmacy.

LeBlanc said the federal government doesn’t have enough data from the pilot yet to determine whether a shortened quarantine period is sound health policy.

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