Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd. is laying off 1,000 people and slashing its flight schedule, blaming “volatile” demand for seats and uncertainty caused by government travel restrictions and advisories instituted to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Immediately following the federal government’s inbound testing announcement on Dec. 31, and with the continuation of the 14-day quarantine, we saw significant reductions in new bookings and unprecedented cancellations,” said Ed Sims, WestJet’s chief executive, in a statement on Friday.
“We have advocated over the past 10 months for a co-ordinated testing regime on Canadian soil, but this hasty new measure is causing Canadian travellers unnecessary stress and confusion and may make travel unaffordable, unfeasible and inaccessible for Canadians for years to come.”
Airlines and the unions that represent the pilots, flight attendants and other employees complain Ottawa’s lack of sector-specific aid for the aviation industry is compounding job losses and economic damage.
In light of WestJet’s job cuts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked at a news conference on Friday why Ottawa has been so slow in negotiating a rescue package for Canada’s battered airline industry.
Mr. Trudeau said the federal government has already provided $1.5-billion in relief to the sector, including a wage-subsidy program. However, he said Ottawa is holding firm on its key demands, including reimbursement of fares for cancelled flights.
“We have made it very clear that we expect people to be reimbursed. We expect regional routes to be protected. We expect certain things from the airline industry and those discussions about how we are going to make sure that people are going to be protected as we offer support are continuing,” he said.
Chris Rauenbusch, the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees local that represents 199 WestJet and WestJet Swoop flight attendants who lost their jobs on Friday, said Canada is the only Group of Seven country that has not provided aid tailored to the needs of its airlines.
“Today’s network and job cuts at WestJet are direct result of the Trudeau government’s continued attack on Canada’s airlines while continuing to offer zero aid to our vital industry,” Mr. Rauenbusch said. “If this industry collapses not only will jobs in our sector vanish, but so will jobs across multiple other sectors.”
Air Canada and WestJet declined to comment on federal aid talks.
WestJet said the job cuts announced on Friday will be made across its network in a combination of temporary layoffs, furloughs, unpaid leaves and reduced hours. Seat capacity will be reduced in February and March by 30 per cent, or by more than 80 per cent from the same period in 2020.
“In addition, the airline will reduce domestic frequencies by 160 departures as frequently evolving advisories, travel restrictions and guidance continue to negatively impact demand trends,” WestJet said.
The reduced flight schedule will leave the airline with 150 daily departures, a low not seen since 2001.
Before the announcement of cuts on Friday, WestJet employed 5,700 people, with another 5,200 classified as “inactive.”
On Jan. 7, the federal government began requiring anyone age 5 and older show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to Canada. The test must be taken within the previous 72 or 96 hours, depending on the country of departure.
Britain on Friday said that beginning next week, people arriving by any mode of transport would have to show a negative COVID-19 test result or face fines. Germany, France and Spain are among the countries that also have testing requirements in their conditions for entry.
The Canadian airline industry opposed Ottawa’s order, and said it would create confusion at departure gates and should be accompanied by relaxed quarantine requirements.
“Regrettably, this new policy leaves us with no other option but to again place a large number of our employees on leave, while impacting the pay of others,” Mr. Sims said.
On the first day the rule went into effect, at least 17 WestJet passengers were not allowed to board their flights home from Mexico, Las Vegas and Hawaii because they did not have the proper test documents, WestJet said on Thursday.
The test requirement is intended as another layer of public-health safety on top of two-week self-isolation rules for travellers, and a ban on most non-Canadian entrants to the country. Since the beginning of pandemic restrictions last March, the government has advised people not to travel for non-essential purposes.
The 11 suspended routes are: Edmonton-Cancun, Edmonton-Puerto Vallarta, Edmonton-Phoenix, Vancouver-Cancun, Vancouver-Phoenix, Vancouver-Puerto Vallarta, Vancouver-Cabo, Vancouver-Los Angeles, Vancouver-Palm Springs, Calgary-Las Vegas and Calgary-Orlando.
WestJet has also suspended flights to and from 13 seasonal destinations: Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Huatulco, Ixtapa, London (Gatwick), Mazatlan, Nassau (Bahamas), Port of Spain, San Jose (Costa Rica), Tampa, and Turks and Caicos.
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