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A person walks past an empty Westjet counter at the Greater Moncton Romeo LeBlanc International Airport in New Brunswick on Wednesday Oct. 14, 2020.

The Globe and Mail

WestJet Airlines Ltd. will suspend most flights in Eastern Canada on Nov. 2, as the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions render these markets “unviable.”

Calgary-based WestJet said on Wednesday it will lay off 100 employees as it halts all flights to and from Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney, Charlottetown and Quebec City next month, eliminating more than 100 weekly flights, or 80 per cent of seat capacity, to Atlantic Canada. The route suspensions are indefinite.

“It has become increasingly unviable to serve these markets,” Ed Sims, WestJet’s chief executive, said in a statement. “We understand this news will be devastating to the communities, our airport partners and the WestJetters who rely on our service. While we remain committed to the Atlantic region, it’s impossible to say when there will be a return to service without support for a co-ordinated domestic approach. Our intent is to return as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so.”

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The route suspensions announced on Wednesday include Halifax-Sydney, Halifax-Ottawa, Moncton-Toronto, Fredericton-Toronto, Charlottetown-Toronto, St. John’s-Toronto and Quebec City-Toronto. As of Nov. 2, WestJet’s only services to Eastern Canada will be flights to Halifax from Calgary, St. John’s or Toronto.

In June, Air Canada suspended services on 30 regional routes, half of which were in Atlantic Canada, owing to weak demand. The carrier also closed operations at eight airports, including Bathurst, N.B., Gaspé, Que., and Wabush, N.L.

WestJet’s announcement on Wednesday marks a retreat for the airline that first flew in 1996 as a Western Canadian carrier. Its routes did not expand to include the rest of Canada until 2000.

The move leaves Air Canada as the only major airline serving the Atlantic provinces.

The Atlantic provinces are in a so-called travel bubble, restricting entry to anyone who does not live there in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly virus. Residents of the four provinces are allowed to move freely in the region without being required to self-isolate.

Canada’s borders are closed to most visitors, and anyone entering the country and certain regions must quarantine for 14 days.

WestJet typically flies two million passengers every month, serving 100 destinations with a fleet of about 180 planes and 15,000 employees. However, the carrier has grounded 70 per cent of its planes, laid off thousands and has flown just one million people since the pandemic took hold in Canada in March.

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“The lack of travel demand, combined with domestic travel quarantines, means we can no longer maintain our full Canadian network of service,” Mr. Sims said in a video posted to YouTube. “It has taken decades to build this robust Canadian network … but over the last eight months, we are beginning to see these efforts unravel.”

The unions representing the airline industry’s pilots, flight attendants and others have called on the federal government to provide $7-billion in low-interest loans to airlines. The call for aid is echoed by the airlines, which say wage subsidies and commercial-rate loans are insufficient.

Testing passengers for COVID-19 could replace travel quarantines and allow borders to reopen safely, say two industry groups, the Airports Council International and International Air Transport Association.

WestJet and Air Canada are taking part in COVID-19 testing of passengers at Vancouver and Toronto’s airports, efforts intended to assure customers' travel is safe while pushing governments to ease travel restrictions.

Toronto-based Porter Airlines has been grounded since March 21 and this week extended its shutdown to Dec. 15. “The flare up of COVID-19 cases in certain markets during the last month dampened any expectation of changes to government restrictions that will enable us to begin flying again in November,” Michael Deluce, Porter’s CEO, said in a statement.

The recent rise in infections in Canada and other countries signals that without an effective vaccine, the airline industry’s recovery is nowhere in sight. Fifty-five domestic flights in the two-week period beginning on Sept. 28 had an infected person on board, according to a federal government website. There were 29 international flights originating from or arriving in Canada during the same period with a case on board.

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