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Masks, screening, vaccines: Airlines consider what a new normal might look like before people pack onto planes again

Masks, screening, vaccines: Airlines consider what a new normal might look like before people pack onto planes again
Business
As airlines around the world grapple with the financial fallout from grounding the vast majority of their fleets, pilots and cabin crews during the coronavirus pandemic, preliminary conversations are being held about what needs to happen before people start packing into airports and planes again.

Health and safety is top of mind for flight attendants as airlines start to discuss what the new normal might look like when full schedules are reintroduced, whenever that might be, said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada Component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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“The discussion has to happen on what’s the standard going forward,” Lesosky said in an interview. “The practicality on a plane is you can’t have social distancing to the extent you’d want it — you can’t have that two-metre distance.”

As it stands, the 2,000 active members still flying for Canada’s largest airline and Air Canada Rouge — thousands more were placed on off-duty status as there’s no flights for them to serve — wear gloves, masks, glasses and gowns on flights loaded with hand sanitizer where food and bar service has been cut to a snack box and a bottle of water upon entering the plane.

CUPE is content with the equipment provided so far, although it continues to push for enhancements such as face shields, Lesosky said. But before normal operations resume, questions need to be answered about what gear will be provided and adopted on a longer-term basis.

The practicality on a plane is you can’t have social distancing to the extent you’d want it

Wesley Lesosky

Flight attendants and pilots unions alike praised Transport Canada for requiring all passengers to wear masks on board planes.

But attempts at social distancing on board a plane where customers are used to sitting inches apart poses a different challenge.

Some airlines including WestJet Airlines Ltd. have temporarily stopped booking middle seats to give passengers more room aboard flights, but airlines including Ireland’s budget carrier Ryranair DAC argue that selling only two thirds of seats isn’t a viable option if they want to make enough money to stay in business. Not to mention, passengers are still well within two metres of the passengers in front and behind them even if middle seats are empty.

Still, the Air Line Pilots Association Canada, which represents WestJet and WestJet Encore pilots, is calling on Transport Canada and the federal government for greater mandated protection for aircrews now and during the recovery.

“With no mandatory requirements in place to protect aircrews, they are putting themselves and their loved ones at risk every time they report for duty,” ALPA Canada president Capt. Tim Perry said in a statement last week.

An Air Canada Jazz pilot is seen leaving Toronto Pearson International Airport. Cole Burston/Getty Images files

The ALPA has called on the government to allow air crews to move through restricted airport areas and through customs separately from customers to minimize their exposure. It has also asked for better passenger screening prior to boarding and expedited testing for aircrews.

Other go-forward requirements are more intangible, such as a public that trusts it’s safe to get on a plane.

“One of the biggest concerns that we all have, not just airports, is consumer confidence,” said Canadian Airports Council president Daniel Gooch, whose organization represents Canada’s largest airports and many of its regional ones. “Public trust is one big factor.”

Airports are also brainstorming what changes need to be made before normal operations resume, whether that involves vaccines, social distancing or passenger screening. But it’s too soon to say what needs to happen as focus remains on the immediate losses to the sector, which might take longer to recover than other industries due to international travel restrictions, Gooch said.

Airports collectively expect to take a $1.8 to $2.2-billion hit this year as revenue dries up with passenger volumes that are expected to drop to 45 per cent of 2019 levels, Gooch said.

Separately, the National Airlines Council of Canada said Tuesday its members have seen a 90 per cent drop in capacity, as revenue has fallen and bookings for the rest of the year remain subdued given uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions.

Air Transat aircraft sit on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Cole Burston/Bloomberg files

“The disruptions could also put at risk about 245,500 jobs in Canada and US$18.3 billion in GDP supported by the air transport industry and foreign tourists travelling to Canada by air,” the NACC said in a statement, noting that a number of projects and work with suppliers across its supply chain have been halted due to the pandemic.

“The economic impact of the pandemic is expected to continue materially for the remainder of the year and into 2021,” the NACC said.

Mike McNaney, CEO of the NACC, which represents Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation LP and WestJet, said it wants Ottawa to introduce liquidity measures for the industry quickly, similar to efforts seen in the United States, Europe and Asia to support the aviation sector.

Ottawa has said in recent weeks that it’s working with airlines and planning ways to provide some form of relief for the beleaguered industry. Air Canada and other airlines have also adopted the government’s wage subsidy program to cut costs.

“Time is of the essence as the economic situation facing Canada’s airlines is deteriorating rapidly,” NACC said in a statement. “The greater the economic damage to the industry, the less competitive and poised for recovery it will be as other countries provide significant direct financial aid to their own carriers.”
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