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A small number of travellers use kiosks to check-in for WestJet flights at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on March 15, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Hundreds of Canadian airline employees are in quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19 and at least 14 have tested positive for the virus, prompting calls for better protection and training from the unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

The demands come as Air Canada announced on Monday it is temporarily laying off 16,500 people, or half its work force, effective April 3. The country’s largest airline intends to slash capacity by up to 90 per cent. In a statement, Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada’s chief executive officer, said the airline’s response to the crisis was “extremely painful.”

For those crews still flying, there is an urgent need for new safety measures, according to their unions. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents flight attendants, is calling on airlines and the federal government to provide flight crews with face shields and gowns in addition to better training on the safe use of masks and gloves to prevent more employees from contacting the virus. Airline employees need access to COVID-19 tests with quick results and greater separation from passengers at airports, said the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at WestJet, Air Transat and several smaller domestic carriers.

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“Air crews are taking significant personal risks by continuing to report for duty. We need immediate action from the government so that air crew exposure to COVID-19 is minimized,” Tim Perry, a WestJet pilot and vice-president of the association, said.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the CUPE Air Canada Component, which represents Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge’s flight attendants, said the union knows of some cases of COVID-19 among flight attendants, but the total number is not available yet. “Too many of our members are risking their health and their safety carrying out their duties to bring Canadians home,” Mr. Lesosky said by phone from Vancouver.

Flight attendants are required to go into a 14-day paid period of quarantine if there is a confirmed case of the coronavirus on their flight. There have been 188 flights in Canada – 122 international and 66 domestic – with a COVID-19 case from March 13 to March 20, according to the federal government. The vast majority were operated by Air Canada. The company declined to say if any employees had tested positive.

Based on rough estimates of eight flight attendants for each international flight and four on a smaller domestic plane, there could be at least 1,000 flight attendants who were quarantined a result.

WestJet said seven of its employees have been infected with COVID-19, but declined to say what part of the business they worked in. At Air Transat, five flight attendants and two pilots have tested positive, and more than 200 of the Montreal-based carrier’s employees are in quarantine.

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

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“Whenever there is exposure, the entire [cabin] crew is quarantined,” said Christophe Hennebelle, a spokesman for Air Transat, which has suspended normal international flights and is operating so-called repatriation flights on behalf of the government for Canadians stranded abroad.

Sunwing Airlines said “privacy reasons” prevented it from disclosing if any of its employees have tested positive. The airline referred The Globe and Mail to a government of Saskatchewan website that said 23 flights in Regina or Saskatoon between March 5 and March 21 had a confirmed COVID-19 case on board. Three of these flights belonged to Sunwing.

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Transport Canada was not immediately able to say how many airline employees had COVID-19, nor did it respond to questions about making protective gear mandatory for cabin crews.

The airlines say they provide gloves and masks to flight crews, and disinfect the airplanes, and are in compliance with government regulations.

“We scrupulously follow instructions from the public health agencies, such as questioning the passengers or disinfecting the planes, and protection kits, including masks and gloves, are available aboard every plane,” Mr. Hennebelle said of Air Transat.

Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said employees are not required to wear masks, but are permitted to do so, in addition to any other personal protective equipment.

On Monday, Air Canada said its “temporary” job losses affect 15,200 union members and 1,300 managers.

“Other than returning the remaining Canadians home and continuing a skeleton operation, we will be essentially ‘closed for business’ for most of the quarter,” said an internal memo obtained by The Globe and Mail. “We are also in discussion with the federal government regarding some form of airline industry support measures. However, at this time, we have no visibility on the scale, scope and timing of any such measures.”

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