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A pilot taxis a WestJet Boeing 737-700 plane to a gate after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Feb. 3, 2014. The WestJet Group is implementing a strict new policy to ensure passengers wear masks on flights, including the possibility of being denied travel for a year if they do not comply.

The Canadian Press

Two air travellers are facing $1,000 fines after refusing to wear masks aboard WestJet flights.

The penalties are the first two imposed by Transport Canada under new laws aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, the federal government said Friday.

“In both incidents, the individuals were directed repeatedly by the air crew to wear their face coverings during the flights and in both cases, the individuals refused,” the federal aviation regulator said in a statement. “All travelers must also comply with any instructions given by a gate agent or a crew member with respect to wearing a face covering.”

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The unnamed air travellers were on separate flights – on June 14 to Waterloo, Ont., from Calgary and on July 7 to Calgary from Vancouver.

The federal government issued an interim order in April requiring air passengers to wear a face covering during flights and in airport terminals. Exceptions include while eating, drinking, taking medicine and staying more than two metres from another person.

On Sept. 1, WestJet Airlines Ltd. began implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for passengers who refuse to wear a face covering by denying them boarding or returning them to the gate to be ejected. Offenders will then be barred from flights operated by WestJet and its affiliates for 12 months.

The two passengers who were fined were reported by onboard employees to company security, who then notified Transport Canada, WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell said in an e-mail.

“While our cabin crew are trained to manage these types of situations, these incidents reinforce the need for our updated policy, as it provides clarity and support for our employees to enforce the regulation,” Ms. Bell said. “Canadian travellers and our employees are counting on us to keep them safe, and travellers must understand [that] if they choose to not wear a mask, they are choosing not to fly our airlines.”

Since Sept. 1, WestJet has barred four customers for refusing to wear face coverings, Ms. Bell said. “To date, we have safely flown more than 725,000 guests on more than 19,400 flights, and these cases do not represent the overwhelming majority of our guests, who are doing an excellent job adhering to the regulations to ensure the safety of all.”

WestJet’s move to eject and bar offenders was lauded by the unions representing the Calgary-based airline’s pilots and flight attendants. “For a safe and sustainable recovery from the impacts of COVID-19, all sectors of the aviation industry and government must work together to find practical solutions,” said Tim Perry, the Canadian president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “Taking steps like this will instill increased passenger confidence and keep those flying safer than before.”

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Amid a collapse in demand for air travel, airlines around the world are trying to assure people it is safe to fly. Masks, scaled-back in-flight services, contactless check-ins and heightened plane sanitization are some of the steps they are taking. WestJet and Air Canada are working with airport authorities in Vancouver and Toronto, respectively, on a COVID-19 test for customers, similar to those in place elsewhere.

However, quarantines and closed borders have made international travel difficult, if not impossible, even for people who want to fly.

Almost all the world’s airlines require masks on board. The safety measure is backed by regulators in the European Union but not the United States.

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