WestJet Airlines Ltd. is implementing a strict new policy to ensure passengers wear masks on board planes, including the possibility of banning travel for a year if they refuse to comply.
The airline is also requiring all flyers to provide their contact information during check-in to help with contact tracing if an infected passenger is on same the flight.
The policy, applicable to all WestJet flights as well its budget subsidiary Swoop, builds on the mandatory on-board mask rule imposed by Transport Minister Marc Garneau in April to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The new measure aims to better enforce existing safety protocols, and comes as the airline and other Canadian carriers are pushing for eased travel restrictions.
The National Airlines Council, a trade group that represents Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Jazz Aviation, called last week for a more targeted approach to quarantines. It asked the federal government to end the blanket ban on foreign travellers — reciprocal bans are not in place for Canadian travellers to many countries — and the two-week self-isolation required of all Canadians returning from abroad, regardless of country of origin.
The council and Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu have also demanded a more consistent approach to domestic restrictions, as the four Atlantic provinces continue to enforce a travel “bubble” that requires a two-week quarantine for those arriving from outside the region.
The pandemic has been devastating for the airline industry, with little sign of a quick rebound in the near future.
Canadian airline revenues in 2020 will fall by $14.6 billion or 43 per cent from last year, according to estimates from the International Air Transport Association.
Passenger revenues at Air Canada dropped 95 per cent year over year in its second quarter, prompting 20,000 layoffs as the airline burned through $19 million per day. WestJet announced more than 3,300 layoffs in June.
“It’s a very dark picture,” said Jacques Roy, a professor of transport management at HEC Montreal business school.
“The most profitable period of an airline is the summer. We’re right into it now. They will be bleeding hard during that period. The other months that are not as profitable will probably be even worse than you’ve seen in the past.”
He said WestJet’s new mask policy marks an attempt to show they are serious about passenger health, who are almost unanimously in favour of such precautions on board.
Starting Sept. 1, refusal to wear a mask by customers over the age of two will be met with a three-step process, WestJet said. Flight attendants will first ask them to put on a mask and then give a warning that face coverings are required.
If passengers continue to refuse, cabin crew will notify them that they are being placed on a no-fly list for travel on any WestJet aircraft for 12 months.
“Masks are mandated by our regulator and the vast majority of our guests are happy to keep themselves and each other safe by complying. This enhanced policy provides clarity on how we will enforce the regulation for those who don’t,” chief executive Ed Sims said in a statement.
“Travellers must understand if they choose to not wear a mask, they are choosing not to fly our airlines.”
More than 560 flights with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 arrived at or departed from Canadian airports in the six months between February and July, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
At WestJet, fewer than 15 flight attendants became infected in the first four months of the pandemic, said Chris Rauenbusch, a flight attendant and official with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the company’s cabin crew.
“CUPE is very pleased to see the further steps WestJet is taking to keep our members safe and empowered. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the airline in reassuring all guests that air travel is truly safe,” Rauenbusch said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press as first published Aug. 28, 2020.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press