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WestJet flight attendants union is expecting layoffs of more than 50 per cent as the number of flight cancellations continues to spiral.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The union representing WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of more than 50 per cent of its staff as the number of flight cancellations continues to mount amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

An internal memo sent to union officials and obtained by The Canadian Press says that travellers are rebooking en masse and “our airlines’ well-being has become grave overnight.”

“As our crew members face the global health situation head on, we are now seeing members booking off in such massive numbers that the airline operations are quickly becoming unsustainable,” the union e-mail reads.

Chris Rauenbusch, president of CUPE 4070 – which represents cabin crews at WestJet and its budget subsidiary Swoop – said that daily conversations with senior management alerted him to the increasingly “severe” situation.

“Basically all new bookings are drying up,” he said. “It’s literally changing by the hour.”

As recently as Wednesday morning, job reductions of only 12 per cent seemed likely, he said, a number that matches WestJet’s recent forecasts.

Since then, however, the U.S. has implemented a ban on most travel from Europe; business trips, large gatherings and daily commutes have dropped off; and institutions from the National Hockey League to Broadway have suspended their seasons.

Rauenbusch said one flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles this morning that had booked 150 passengers took off with just 12 on board.

He said the full impact of the novel coronavirus epidemic is just starting to sink in, as flight cancellations increase and consumers turn away from airports to make a run on toilet paper.

“We’ve tried to communicate the gravity of the situation,” he said. “I’m not sure reality has set in yet.”

WestJet did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Friday the government plans to restrict the airports that can accept international flights, so people arriving on them can be more closely screened. The list of airports that will be included has not been settled yet, he said.

WestJet company said Wednesday that flight reductions may hit its domestic, transatlantic and vacation destinations as well as trips to the U.S.

Other cost reduction efforts introduced this week include a company-wide hiring freeze and voluntary leave options.

Flight attendants at Air Canada said no word had come down about job reductions.

“At the moment, we’re not aware of layoffs or anything like that,” said Canadian Union of Public Employees spokesman Hugh Pouliot.

Canada’s largest airline has seen its stock price plunge by more than half over the past two months. It has suspended flights to mainland China and Italy and cut back routes to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul as travel fears spread with the new virus.

In response to the travel bans and cancellations, Delta Air Lines said Friday it will cut passenger-carrying capacity by 40 per cent, the biggest reduction in the carrier’s 91-year history.

Delta, which is talking with the White House and Congress about potential relief, plans to halt all flights to continental Europe for at least 30 days and ground up to 300 aircraft to save cash.

Recent booking fee waivers by Air Canada and WestJet have failed to stem the tide of cancellations or encourage new bookings as countries impose border controls and domestic quarantines.

Transat AT Inc., which owns Air Transat – and which Air Canada bought in a deal awaiting regulatory approval – has seen daily bookings plunge by 50 per cent year over year this month, executives said Thursday.

“Things are moving super-fast at this point,” Julie Roberts, who heads CUPE’s airline division of 15,000 flight attendants, said in an e-mail Friday.

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