Major layoffs, flight reductions hit West Wind Aviation due to COVID-19 pandemic

Saskatoon-based West Wind Aviation has laid off employees and reduced flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dayne Winter / Global News

 An airline that serves some of Saskatchewan’s northernmost communities has laid off about half of its employees and drastically reduced flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 150 of West Wind Aviation’s 300 employees have been laid off temporarily or are working fewer hours, said Stephen Smith, the company’s acting president.

“We have phenomenal employees and they are great at what they do. We, unfortunately, don’t have enough work for them right now,” Smith told Global News.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Saskatchewan reports 14 new COVID-19 cases, bringing total to 66

More layoffs could be on the way, depending on how long the pandemic limits people’s movements, he said.

Demand has declined significantly as government and health officials warn people to avoid non-essential travel.

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As a result, the company has reduced its daily number of flights by about 80 per cent, he said.

“We obviously have no choice but to continue to reduce our cost structure. The whole concept being that we want a company back … when the economy rebounds,” Smith said.

“The worst thing would be that we don’t survive the downturn that we’re seeing right now.”

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West Wind planes are flying to northern communities near Fond du Lac three times a week, he said, so essential travel is still possible.

READ MORE: Cameco, Orano shut down Saskatchewan uranium facilities due to COVID-19 fears

Smith noted the company has been in communication with community leaders, who have stressed the importance of eliminating non-essential travel to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

Rick Robillard lives near Stony Rapids in the province’s far north and works as a community liaison for uranium companies Cameco and Orona Canada.

He said transport trucks are still delivering essential goods like groceries. West Wind’s cargo shipments will be crucial once ice roads melt, he said.

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Robillard has flown with West Wind for work in the past but said travel is not necessary right now.

“It’s strongly advised that we all stay home and we’re fine with that,” he said.

The company’s decision to reduce flights could help keep the virus out of northern communities, he said.

“Leadership with the northern communities has taken it upon themselves to protect the health of all the northerners,” he said, noting there are some newly implemented limitations on incoming traffic.

“We are all in this together up in the north.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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