Canada’s airline industry will soon mark a sombre anniversary — two years since the COVID-19 pandemic paused flights and economic growth. But there is optimism that clear skies may be ahead for the sector.
That can’t come soon enough for YYC Calgary International Airport. It went into the pandemic with record high passenger loads, but by 2020 it became a ghost town.
“It was really surreal,” Chris Miles, the airport authority’s vice-president of operations and infrastructure, told Global News.
“It was actually eerily quiet in the terminal buildings. At one point, our lows were at 200 to 300 outbound passengers, when on a normal day we’d have 50,000 (or) 55,000 people here.”
The airport authority was forced to slash jobs and shutter entire sections of the airport.
Calgary-based airline WestJet also went from flying high to flying almost no one.
“System-wide, we were about 40 flights a day,” the airline said.
Antonio Faiola, a senior manager for guest experiences at WestJet, added that pre-pandemic, the airline was flying an average of 700 flights per day.
The airline also cut staffing levels and destinations which led to a backlash from angry customers who fought to get refunds instead of travel vouchers. It eventually offered refunds to some travellers.
“One thing that is important is for us to be financially sustainable throughout this pandemic, and to be able to come out of this stronger,” Faiola said.
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger was key for the entire airline industry, but it soon learned it wouldn’t be an easy or quick task.
‘We went through 9-11, we went through financial crises, we went through SARS — but again, those were relatively short-lived periods,” Miles said.
“With COVID(-19), there was a lot of apprehension (and) a lot of nerves because there was not a lot of information.”
New travel rules: masks and vaccination requirements
The lack of information kept a lot of people grounded, but travel has since picked up. New figures released earlier this month by Statistics Canada showed 263,400 non-resident arrivals at Canadian airports in October, representing a more than 14-fold increase compared to the same time last year.
However, some travellers remain daunted by all the travel rules and restrictions.
Not only do travellers have to pack their bags (and passports if flying out of the country), they now also have to pack their masks.
“It is required to wear a mask when you’re travelling,” Faiola said.
“It’s also a requirement to wear a mask when you’re onboard an aircraft. The only time you don’t have to wear a mask is when you’re eating.”
It’s also a requirement to be fully vaccinated when flying into or across Canada. Unvaccinated travellers can get a molecular test such as a PCR test done, but starting Nov. 30, anyone over the age of 12 has to be fully vaccinated. Anyone flying out of country also needs a molecular test to come back — regardless of vaccination status — unless the trip is 72 hours or shorter.
The United States is also allowing fully vaccinated non-residents in, but a viral or rapid antigen test is mandatory for all travellers.
International travellers are advised to check ahead as there are different rules for different countries.
Added security when flying
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has also made several changes at security screening. Acrylic barriers and full body scanners have been set up and screeners are required to wear masks, face shields and disposable gloves.
“It’s really the same procedures that we’ve always had with a few extra layers of safety and security for both our screeners and the passengers,” CATSA’s Pierre Simard told Global News.
“We will not compromise on either one.”
Anyone arriving in Canada will also see some changes when dealing with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
“Travellers must present an ArriveCAN declaration,” the CBSA’s Lisa White said.
“ArriveCAN can either be an app you download on your smartphone or you can also do it on your computer. ArriveCAN is where you submit your quarantine plan, where you submit your PCR testing (and) your vaccination records.”
White said infection prevention is key and some passengers may be asked to take a random COVID-19 test.
White doesn’t expect much in delays as travel ramps up, but warns there could be some.
“Our message to folks is we’re all in this together and let’s be patient,” she said. “There are a lot of steps to go through.”
Preparing for a rebound
Now that air travel is picking up again, airports and airlines are back to pivoting, and that can be a challenge.
“Growing back up is a lot harder than scaling it down,” Miles said.
YYC Calgary International has been busy reconnecting people and services to meet the new demand.
“We’re actually back to connecting all of the destinations within Canada that we did prior to 2019,” Miles said.
And while trans-border and international passenger numbers are still down, those too have risen from the lows of the pandemic.
“We’re doing once-a-day (flights) to certain destinations, whereas pre-COVID we were probably doing three or four (per day). But people are coming back and we’re excited to have them back.”
WestJet is also excited, as flights have ramped up to just over 400 a day. It too has been on a hiring spree.
“Just prior to the pandemic, we were at 14,000 employees,” Faiola said. “And we’re getting close to being back to almost 9,000.”
The challenge for the airport and its partners is now to ramp up several services shuttered by the shutdown, a task officials say they’re more than willing to take on.