It was mid-March, and the list of countries closing their borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic was lengthening by the day. On March 13, it was Morocco’s turn, a move that caught Air Canada off guard and marooned hundreds of Canadians for whom Casablanca is a popular winter destination.
“We weren’t anticipating suspending service,” recalls Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada’s vice-president of operations, “and then one night we were leaving Montreal and the Moroccan government said, ‘This will be your last [flight], you’re done tomorrow. We’re taking your landing rights away.’”
Air Canada pulled out its crews stationed for rest in Casablanca that night. But it would take several days of careful planning involving Canadian and Moroccan authorities before the airline could return a week later with three flights to bring home more than 1,300 Canadians fearful of being stranded as COVID-19 sealed borders, closed local roads and infected thousands.
The repatriation flights were among 130 to 69 countries co-ordinated by the Canadian government since mid-March. But now that schedule is winding down, although Ottawa has declined to say if or when it will end the program.
“Despite our best efforts, we will not be able to ensure the return of all Canadians who wish to come home," said Krystyna Dodds, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada.
So far, the flights, operated by Air Canada, WestJet and other airlines, have brought home more than 18,000 Canadians from Ukraine, Spain and other countries. But on Monday, Air Canada said its April 17 flight from Algiers marked the end of its participation in the government program, although it is available for more should the government ask.
WestJet flies to Guatemala City on April 23, and “there are still a few on our radar,” said Lauren Stewart, a WestJet spokeswoman.
More than 351,000 Canadians abroad are registered to access consular services and travel information, including flights home during the pandemic. The repatriation flights have refocused the efforts of Global Affairs Canada. The department’s typical consular responsibilities of trade and bilateral relations have been overtaken by the requests from thousands of Canadians trying to get home.
Air Canada’s three relief flights to and from Casablanca began in Halifax. The crew for the first one and their plane, a Boeing 777 with an enhanced seating capacity of 450, arrived the night before departure so they would be rested for a 19-hour shift.
The crew of four pilots and 12 flight attendants was twice the usual size and allowed employees to rest over the Atlantic. “They’re not normal missions, so it’s not like it’s routine,” said Air Canada’s Mr. O’Connor.
Matthew Goodmurphy, an Air Canada service manager who usually works on flights chartered by National Hockey League teams, said he jumped at the chance to work the flight. He then signed up for two more to Casablanca, along with the rest of the crew.
“Knowing that people were starting to feel a sense of desperation to get back home ... I think we were all just really happy to lend a hand, putting ourselves in their shoes as people to travel for a living,” Mr. Goodmurphy said.
Air Canada continues to fly a small number of international commercial routes as the government repatriation flights end. For Canadians unable to get home, Ottawa has approved 1,745 loans worth a total $5.4-million and is processing another 2,000 applications for financial assistance.
Sharon Stein, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, is among those who made it back. Ms. Stein was working with Indigenous people in Brazil’s Amazon before she and her colleagues learned about the halt to air travel.
“The calls for Canadians to come home due to the coronavirus did not reach us until we were very close to the border with Peru," Ms. Stein said. “So when we found that out, we rescheduled our flights to get back to Canada as soon as we could."
The next day, she said, “the Peruvian government announced the state of emergency” and cancelled all inbound flights. Ms. Stein then waited several days for an email from the Canadian government for news of a relief flight.
The email contained a flight code and spurred a rush to Air Canada’s website. “Everyone gets the code at the same time and then frantically runs to the Air Canada website to try and book a seat. And, of course, there are many more people wanted to go home than there are seats on the flight,” she said.
Passengers also had to pay for their flights. Ashley Elliott, 38, landed in Lima on March 13 after quitting her bank job in Toronto to pursue her dream of volunteering on wildlife and conservation projects in the rainforest for two-and-a-half months. But Peru went into lockdown, and she never made the trek.
Instead, Ms. Elliott stayed at a friend’s apartment in Lima, venturing outside only to buy groceries. The rest of the time was spent in touch with family, other Canadians in the country and awaiting an email that would allow her a chance to fly home. After one failed attempt, she got a seat on the second available flight to Toronto. It cost $1,400, a price she called “exorbitant.”
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