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opinion

Travellers head towards Air Canada check in terminals at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Nov. 9 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canadians have become inured to bad behaviour by airlines over the years.

So news that Air Canada hired social-media influencers to encourage Canadians to ignore government health advice and take dream vacations during a worsening global pandemic should surprise no one – least of all our elected officials.

“What’s more relaxing than the perfect balance of mountains, ocean and sunshine?” wrote an Instagrammer who is known as JennExplores in a post promoting her so-called safe travels in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with Air Canada Vacations and Iberostar Hotels and Resorts.

That’s quite a flight of fancy. But did Ottawa really expect Canada’s largest airline to prioritize public health over its own profitability as COVID-19 case counts soar and new variants of the deadly disease rattle the world?

Puh-leeze. That’s just bad for business – especially now that Air Canada is aiming to expand its share of the leisure travel market through its proposed $180-million purchase of rival Air Transat.

Those marvelling over Air Canada’s inability to do the right thing during this spiralling crisis are forgetting that our flag carrier, which was built with public money, has long had a malfunctioning moral compass.

For decades, Canadians have been held captive by lousy service and high prices on domestic routes. There are countless horror stories of hapless passengers, including children, being bumped from oversold flights or being mistreated by employees when they request service in French. But those are the perks of being the coddled incumbent in a federally protected industry.

Air Canada’s contempt for consumers has also been evident throughout this pandemic. It has rankled customers with its refund policies for cancelled flights, compromised passenger safety by resuming the sale of middle and adjacent seats on planes and, most recently, opposed a new rule requiring air travellers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding international flights to Canada.

Even Americans have grumbled about Air Canada during the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report said Air Canada racked up the most complaints of any foreign airline this past May.

But why should Air Canada fear any damage to its brand when it knows darn well that it has the upper hand with consumers, especially in its home market?

Behold the self-serving statements from its executives during this crisis. Back in July, when the country’s top doctors were warning of an impending second wave of infections, Air Canada’s president and chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu was railing against government-imposed travel bans. “Other parts of the world have also had a more rational, I would say, science-based approach to opening markets,” he said at the time.

During the previous month, he called Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for travellers “a total cold shower on building any kind of aviation business.” (Funny, that’s how many consumers feel about foreign investment rules that shield our airline industry from vigorous competition.)

Perhaps the icing on the cake, however, is that Air Canada and its smaller rivals want a taxpayer-funded bailout (on top of previous wage subsidies), but are pushing Ottawa to drop its demand that airlines refund customers’ money for cancelled flights during the pandemic to be eligible for such financial relief.

Although it’s refreshing to see our federal officials put their foot down on that bailout condition, they bear some blame for Air Canada’s gauche tactics – including the hiring of social-media influencers to promote travel despite the pandemic’s rising death toll.

For starters, Ottawa waited too long to prevent vacationers from exploiting a federal sick leave benefit that was intended for people who quarantined after essential travel abroad. Similarly, the government was too slow to introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing for international travellers – even though the travel industry began dangling incentives months ago to entice winter travel.

Perhaps worst of all, numerous federal and provincial politicians had no compunction taking international vacations during the recent Christmas break – even as they told ordinary folks to stay at home.

One senior public servant at the Public Health Agency of Canada – who is responsible for border and travel health, no less – even accepted an all-expenses-paid holiday to Jamaica courtesy of Air Canada Vacations in November. “Thank you, Air Canada Vacations. We are beside ourselves,” Dominique Baker gushed in a video.

So why wouldn’t Air Canada hire social-media influencers to promote leisure travel this winter?

No one is denying that our airlines are being walloped by this pandemic, and common sense dictates the federal government would never let our flag carrier fail. (Remember when Ottawa provided badly needed relief so the airline could tackle its previous pension deficit?)

But if Air Canada is pushing the envelope during this crisis – and perhaps giving us a preview of what’s to come if cabinet approves its takeover of Air Transat – it’s because Ottawa has a long history of mollycoddling the airline industry to the detriment of consumers.

Our legislators should know by now that if they give Air Canada an inch, it will surely take a mile.

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