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A nearly empty Westjet check-in area is seen at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

WestJet Airlines is set to cut its international seat capacity by 60 per cent and reduce domestic flights by at least 40 per cent amid government actions to limit travel to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Calgary-based WestJet has halted capital projects and asked vendors for price cuts, but did not say how many layoffs are in store for the company’s 12,000 flight attendants, pilots and others employees.

“We continue to see a significant reduction in demand and are evaluating all available measure to secure the financial viability of our airline,” Canada’s second-largest airline said late Saturday.

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CUPE 4070, which represents WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of up to 50 per cent or more, but the airline did not confirm the number of potential cuts.

“Unfortunately, we … have no alternative but to reduce the number of employees," WestJet said. "Our first and most preferred option is to ask WestJetters to consider voluntary leaves, unpaid vacation, reduced work time among other voluntary measures.”

The federal government is warning Canadians not to travel abroad, and to stay off cruise ships as a growing number of countries – including Canada – try to contain the deadly virus. The United States has barred non-U.S. travellers from certain European countries, and many airlines are parking planes and cancelling routes amid plummeting demand for air travel.

“New restrictions may be imposed with little warning,” the government said. “Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said on Friday Canada will restrict incoming international flights to a yet-to-be determined list of Canadian airports. The move could make returning home tougher for Canadians, but is intended to allow the government to better screen people for COVID-19 exposure.

“Our goal is to continue to fly our international flights and return as many Canadians home as possible as the demand for inbound travel remains strong at this time,” WestJet said.

Global airline stock prices have tumbled along with broader markets as the world’s biggest economies essentially shut down to limit the spread of the disease. Health authorities are advising people to stay home, not travel and limit social interactions.

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In the U.S., American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. have announced deep cuts amid plunging demand for travel and government-imposed restrictions. American Airlines said it will park most of its wide-body planes and suspend 75 per cent of international flights while Delta said it would slash routes by 40 per cent.

The American Airlines announcement followed the U.S. decision to extend a 26-country European flight ban to Britain and Republic of Ireland.

Holiday carriers Transat AT Inc. and Sunwing Airlines Inc. said they are seeking financial aid from governments to blunt the effect of the plunge in travel demand and preserve jobs. “Federal, provincial and municipal levels of government have all shown willingness to address this matter collaboratively and we will continue to engage in the days ahead," Sunwing said on Sunday.

Meanwhile, WestJet said on Saturday the Public Health Agency of Canada determined a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to Calgary from London Gatwick Airport on March 5 on Flight WS2. WestJet said anyone in rows 36 to 40 of that flight should heed health officials’ advice and self-isolate for 14 days.

Airlines were still offering discounts and posting unfortunate ads even as travellers were being told to stay home

Despite the government warnings against non-essential international travel, some airlines are promoting trips to holiday destinations with deep discounts.

Sunwing Airlines is offering discounts of 50 per cent and 56 per cent on Caribbean resort packages for the next two weeks, even as the government warns Canadians to stay home to protect themselves and others from the virus.

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“To limit the spread of COVID-19, the Government of Canada advises that you avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada until further notice,” the federal government says in an online notice. “Making the choice to stay at home and to not travel outside of Canada is the best way to protect yourself, your family and the most vulnerable groups in our communities from the spread of COVID-19.”

When asked why it was promoting international travel against the health recommendations of the Canadian government, Sunwing said in an e-mail it has stopped advertising the specials and is “in the process of removing promotions from our website.”

WestJet’s discount brand Swoop is selling one-way tickets to Mexican destinations for $101 and to Las Vegas for as low as $69, depending on departure dates and locations. “Prices so low you gotta go!” a Swoop ad said online on Saturday, above an image of a toilet paper roll, a cheeky reference to the shortage of bathroom tissue caused by panicked buying across Canada in recent days as worried people stock their cupboards in preparations for possible quarantines to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

Larissa Mark, a Swoop spokeswoman, said the airline owned by Onex Corp. is "in regular contact with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Transport Canada and other agencies to ensure that we are in alignment with their air travel recommendations.”

“As all airports we fly into remain open, we have not cancelled a flight as a result of COVID-19 or due to a decline in demand. It is our intent to continue operating our full schedule until restrictions are in place.”

She said the toilet paper ads are no longer running.

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“Our recent marketing campaign was a tongue-in-cheek promotion highlighting increased toilet paper demand, not the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were drawing a parallel to the cost of stocking up on toilet paper versus the cost of being able to book a low-cost flight with Swoop; that it is more expensive to buy a stash of toilet paper than book a flight with Swoop.

“We understand that not everyone will find every joke funny, but it is never our intention to offend,” Ms. Mark said in an e-mail.

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