MONTREAL - In the latest sign of COVID-19's devastating toll on Canada's aviation sector, Air Canada said Tuesday that it will temporarily lay off 1,500 unionized employees as it cuts more international routes.
The layoffs, which also include an unspecified number of management staff, leave Air Canada with just a fraction of its pre-pandemic workforce as the federal government announces measures such as mandatory hotel quarantines to further deter international travel.
“We are further reducing our transborder and international commercial schedule as a result of COVID-19,” a spokesperson for Air Canada said. “Affected customers with bookings will be contacted with options, including alternate routings.”
The service cuts include 17 routes to the U.S. and other international destinations, and will last until at least April 30, Air Canada said Tuesday. The earliest suspensions will go into effect as soon as Feb. 12.
The route suspensions in the U.S. include flights to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver and Fort Myers, Air Canada said. The airline is also suspending flights to Bogota from Montreal, London and Tokyo from Vancouver, and Bogota, Dublin and Sao Paulo from Toronto, among other routes.
Flights from Toronto to Tel Aviv will continue to be suspended, and flights from Toronto to Dubai and Hong Kong will have their startups postponed.
News of the layoffs on Tuesday sparked renewed criticism of the federal government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its lack of a targeted bailout package for airlines despite increasingly restrictive travel measures that have sapped consumer demand.
“We appreciate the need for measures to prevent the spread of new variants of COVID-19 in Canada,” said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, which represents flight attendants at Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge. “But restrictions have to be accompanied by solutions.”
“Instead of working with us, the government is working against us, and one year into this pandemic, Canada remains the only country in the G7 without a plan to help the airline sector weather the pandemic, and defend tens of thousands of good jobs,” Lesosky added.
A spokeswoman for Transport Canada, Allison St-Jean, said the government is there to support workers affected by the pandemic and that its decisions are based on science and the recommendations of Public Health Canada. “We will never hesitate to take any actions necessary to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” St-Jean said.
For months, the government has been in negotiations with airlines over the terms of a bailout package. However, Ottawa has said any aid is contingent on airlines refunding passengers for cancelled flights during the pandemic.
Air Canada's announcement will bring the total number of airline workers who have been laid off since the start of 2021 to around 5,000. This round of layoffs at Air Canada follows cuts of around 1,700 workers in January.
In addition to Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. has temporarily laid off more than 1,000 workers since the new year, and Transat AT Inc., which has completely paused operations until April 30 and furloughed about 450 employees.
The latest travel restrictions announced by the federal government include mandatory hotel stays for people entering Canada by air, which will cost travellers more than $2,000, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in January. Canadian airlines have also agreed, at the request of the federal government, to suspend all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30.
As a result of the suspensions to sun destinations, Air Canada said last week that it planned to temporarily halt operations at Air Canada Rouge, which primarily operates the company's flights to Mexico and the Caribbean. The service cuts involved temporary layoffs of around 80 employees.
Swoop, a low-cost carrier owned by WestJet Airlines Ltd., said it notified employees on Monday that would reduce its workforce by 36 flight crew members as of Feb. 16, in light of the new restrictions.
In addition to flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, Swoop also suspended international flights from Edmonton, given a new federal mandate that all international flights land in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or Montreal.
“Swoop has adapted our operations throughout the pandemic to ensure Canadians have access to affordable essential travel,” Swoop spokeswoman Denise Kenny said. “We continue to operate a domestic-only schedule reflective of the demand of our travellers.”
Since the announcement about hotel quarantines, Trudeau has continued to crack down on international travel, saying Tuesday that as of Feb. 15, anyone entering Canada through a land border will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
A previous requirement for international travellers to show negative test results, which went into effect on Jan. 7, applied only to air travel. Airlines said they saw an immediate drop in bookings once the requirement was implemented, leading to another round of route cuts and layoffs by Canadian carriers in January.
In a statement Tuesday, Stephanie Kusie, the Conservative shadow minister of transport, blamed the widespread job losses in the airline sector to the Liberal government's handling of the pandemic.
“Conservatives will continue to call for the certainty and competence that airline workers and those who rely on the aviation sector deserve,” Kusie said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.