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Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft at the airline's facilities in Calgary on May 7, 2019.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Vacationers trying to fly home to Canada from tropical sunspots were denied seats on their return flights on Thursday under new rules that require anyone flying into the country show proof they have passed a recent COVID-19 test.

Ten WestJet Airlines Ltd. passengers were not allowed to board their plane to Calgary from Cancun, Mexico, while eight Air Transat passengers could not get on their flight to Toronto from Cuba’s Holguin Airport, the airlines said.

Both flights were the airlines’ first international return flights under a rule that went into effect on Thursday that requires international passengers age 5 and older prove they tested negative for COVID-19 in the previous 72 or 96 hours, depending on the country.

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The WestJet passengers presented gate staff with antibody or antigen test results, rather than the required polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) or loop-mediated isothermal amplification tests, said Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman. An antibody test shows if a person is likely to have had the virus, not if they currently do.

The customers were rebooked on another day’s flights, and WestJet’s staff in Cancun is helping them find a place to take the correct test. “This situation further highlights the challenges travellers and our operations are facing,” Ms. Bell said.

The federal government has repeatedly told Canadians to stay home and avoid non-essential travel to reduce spreading or catching the virus that has killed more than 16,500 people in the country.

Patty Hajdu, the federal Minister of Health, said on Wednesday travellers should expect to have difficulties obtaining tests in some countries, partly because the countries are using their supply of tests to combat the pandemic.

“This is exactly why we are advising people not to travel internationally,” Ms. Hajdu said at a press conference outlining the new testing rule. “As more people become infected with COVID-19, more people become hospitalized and of course we see, sadly, more people die. So stay home, cancel your travel if not absolutely necessary.”

Several countries, including France, Germany and Spain, have entry requirements that include COVID-19 tests, before or on admission.

The airline industry opposed the testing rule, arguing it would strand travellers in countries where tests are not readily available and complicate operations because of the responsibilities of enforcing and explaining the policy. Negative tests should allow shorter quarantines, the airlines say.

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“Our teams are doing everything they can to assist guests and problem-solve in destinations across our network,” Ms. Bell said. “Understandably, there are questions and confusion including additional volume to our contact centre since it was announced.”

Christophe Hennebelle, a spokesman for Montreal-based airline and tour operator Transat, said the passengers denied boarding in Cuba did not have the required PCR tests. “We are tackling the issues destination after destination, flight after flight,” he 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 co-operation may have helped preventing this.”

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline has had to rebook some customers and help them obtain tests, but did not immediately provide details. “Overall the operation is running well but, as expected, we are experiencing some challenges with customers who have not met the new government testing requirements,” he said.

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