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opinion

Calin Rovinescu is the CEO of Air Canada. The following is adapted from a speech he gave to the company’s AGM.

Air Canada was among the first airlines in the world to suspend service to China, on Jan. 29, 2020, to help prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Well ahead of any governmental restrictions and the declaration of a pandemic, we encouraged regulators to take the initial China risk seriously.

Throughout this, we’ve been at the forefront of biosafety, not waiting for regulators to establish standards. We outfitted crews with hospital-grade physical protection equipment. We required customer face coverings before it became industry practice. We were the first airline in the Americas to mandate temperature checks, as part of CleanCare+, our new protocol, which includes personal hygiene kits, limited crew interactions and use of electrostatic sprayers.

Our mainline aircraft have high-efficiency air exchange systems with HEPA filters, meeting levels recommended for medical isolation rooms. This, in part, explains why onboard transmission of disease, including COVID-19, is exceedingly rare.

However, despite this, Air Canada continues to be effectively shut down by government-imposed restrictions, operating a fraction of what we operated last year.

I have to say a few words on the path forward, given the seriousness of these constraints.

For nearly four months in Canada, we heeded calls of elected officials and did what was necessary to flatten the curve. Borders were closed and Canadians were told to avoid all travel. We are now entering a new phase, one in which we must find a responsible way to co-exist with COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed.

Air Canada represents about $50-billion in economic output to Canada. Prior to COVID-19, we employed 38,000 people, plus 6,000 more at our regional carriers. We support 34,000 retirees and their families. We indirectly support 190,000 jobs in spinoff industries. Millions of Canadians and their families depend on our company and on this economic activity.

Virtually all other airlines among the world’s top 20 are receiving tens of billions of dollars in support from their governments. We have thus far managed to raise adequate liquidity to go it alone. But now, we need to be permitted to prudently do some business, in the same way airlines in other countries are.

Our government, as a matter of urgency, needs to find a way to achieve its vital public-health objectives while allowing for a prudent lifting of restrictions throughout Canada, as well as from select countries with infection rates under control. Other Group of 20 countries have introduced “safe” corridors or air bridges in a gradual manner and use science-based approaches. We need to as well.

Two weeks ago, 120 travel and tourism industry leaders, a sector that employs 1.8 million people and contributes $102-billion to our economy, publicly called for the reopening of travel – to cautiously begin relaxing restrictions. They suggested the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international travellers and the closing of our border is now disproportionate and out of step with other countries.

Last week, leaders of 27 leading companies from other business sectors – banking, manufacturing, asset management, telecommunications, energy, retail, sports, entertainment and transportation – who in 2019 collectively employed a million Canadians, also wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers to encourage reopening aviation in a measured way. They highlighted that aviation is critical for the entire economy, not just tourism. It is a key driver and enabler of competitiveness. It influences investment decisions and supports industrial, knowledge-based and creative sectors.

In imposing comprehensive quarantines and restrictions, our government deployed its emergency powers. At the time, blanket prohibitions may have been necessary – introduced at the peak of the crisis.

Now, more than 100 days later, aviation is still largely closed and enormous numbers of people remain severely affected. Those broad emergency powers need to be discharged reasonably and proportionately.

Alternatives that minimize damage to Canadians’ economic and social well-being need to be considered, especially as the curve has flattened. According to the Open Data Working Group, Canada’s COVID-19 reproduction number has been below 1 and dropping consistently since May. The national reproduction average is 0.65.

Major European countries including Germany, France and Italy are in the process of easing restrictions to permit travel. The EU has proposed a thoughtful checklist approach that assesses replication rates, consistency of bio-health measures and reciprocity, and demonstrates that evidence-based measures are viable alternatives.

Many jobs and livelihoods depend on viable alternatives. Indeed, as the 27 business leaders said last week, the entire Canadian economy depends on it.