“I don’t use the word scandalous lightly, but it is a scandalous and extraordinary situation,” said WestJet CEO Ed Sims during an interview on Eurocontrol’s Aviation StraightTalk Tuesday where he discussed the lack of sector-specific aid from the Canadian government for the country’s aviation industry.
“I think that is disgraceful,” the WestJet leader said. “In any other industry, in our aluminum, in our agriculture industry, in our resource industry, people simply wouldn’t tolerate that.”
Governments around the world have collectively doled out almost US$200 billion dollars in state aid to their aviation sectors, according to IATA. Canadian airlines have yet to receive a penny of sector-specific financial support from the federal government. As a result of border controls, mandatory hotel quarantines and interprovincial travel constraints leading to a precarious demand for travel, the Calgary-based airline has parked 80 per cent of its aircraft and is operating between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of its previous guest count revenue.
This has opened the door to foreign carriers stepping in to fill the void. Canadian airlines have already lost 23 per cent of their market share to international carriers as they continue to operate at an “enormous structural disadvantage to Lufthansa, Air France, Delta, KLM and United Airlines”, Sims noted.
The reason Canadian aviation is being shunned out of sector-specific aid, Sims suspects, comes down to populist support — or in this case, lack of it.
“What’s happened lately is that there has been a lot of flight shaming, not in the environmental European sense, but in the sense of public leaders, particularly politicians taking international trips at a time when the Prime Minister has reemphasized a number of times that it’s almost a lack of patriotism or national disunity to be travelling internationally,” Sims said.
“Because aviation has been tainted as an engine of spread and not as we see ourselves, as an agent of containment of COVID-19, then the government simply had not been able to garner enough support in popularity polls to warrant intervening on behalf of the airlines.”
But like most crises, there is a silver lining to the lack of sectoral support: “It doesn’t put constraints on board positions or warrants or equity shares. It prevents us from becoming semi-nationalized. All that is a positive,” Sims said.
Aviation Is Not an “Engine of COVID-19 Spread”
The view that airlines are an “engine of spread” for COVID-19 is unfounded, Sims said, noting that one just needs to “look at the current numbers” to understand why.
While the rate of COVID-19 spread in Canada has been around 3.5 per cent, WestJet’s own tracking and testing programs have found spread originating from international and domestic travel sits at approximately 1.5 per cent.
“I think we can say with absolute conviction we are not part of the problem. We can’t always guarantee, as an industry, that someone hasn’t knowingly tested positive and boarded a flight, or is simply unconscious of being symptomatic, but I think we can say in all conviction that we are not spreading the disease,” Sims said.
WestJet, in partnership with the Government of Alberta, launched a testing pilot for international arrivals at YYC in OCT 2020. Since then, more than 50,000 travellers have been tested, yielding a positivity rate of about 1.3 per cent, Sims noted. The testing program at YYZ, where approximately 60,000 travellers were tested, showed a similar rate of infection, at about 1.4 per cent. Westjet’s YVR testing program has yielded a positivity rate of zero.
Vaccine Passports Are on the Table
When asked whether he supports vaccine certificates, Sims voiced his support for immunity passports, like those that Qantas is promoting, as well as IATA’s Travel Pass, but he cautioned that it’s “early days” before the concept gains endorsement in Canada.
“Canada as a country has slipped from about sixth in the world for vaccine distribution to the mid-60s. So it’s really hard for us to start talking to our population about mandatory vaccine passports when we don’t have vaccines in the country. There are significant privacy concerns within Canadian legislation and those will have to be overcome before we get widespread support of vaccine passports,” Sims said.
The aviation industry should be “leading the way”, Sims noted, with pilots and flight attendants among the first to receive vaccinations “so that when demand recovers, we can welcome people on board saying you are in a 100 per cent vaccinated environment.”