With just one day until Canada launches new COVID-19 pre-departure testing requirements for air passengers, Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, will hold a press conference on Wednesday (Jan. 6) about the controversial new travel rule.
The briefing, which is set to take place at 1:00 p.m. EST, will also involve Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne and Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair.
Ottawa is expected to shed some light on its policy that will require all air passengers (five years of age or older) to test negative for COVID-19 before travelling by air from another country to Canada.
The new rule, which starts Jan. 7, means travellers will be responsible for obtaining their own negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test while in destination, and at their own expense.
But according to new information obtained by CBC News, the CEOs of the country's largest airlines are calling on Transport Minister Marc Garneau to delay the launch until later this month.
CBC reports that Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing — along with two major trade associations, the International Air Transport Association and National Airlines Council of Canada — recently sent a letter to Minister Garneau, warning him that Ottawa’s timeline for implementing the new rule is not realistic.
The carriers are proposing that the new policy should instead start on Jan. 18.
"Minister, we have very serious concerns about the feasibility of successfully implementing such a significant measure in the extremely short time[frame] announced, without consultation or a coordinated plan," reads the letter, which CBC News says it has obtained.
Travellers heading to Canada who do not have a test result (when there are clinics available) will be denied boarding in destination, Garneau has previously said.
Those that can prove that they were unable to get their test abroad will be able to board, but will have to quarantine for 14 days in a government facility upon entering Canada.
(For a detailed FAQ on the policy, click here).
The requirement, which has been heavily criticized by many in the travel industry, was announced on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31), giving airlines and tour operators just one week’s notice to prepare.
Taken by surprise
“Obviously we were taken by surprise,” Christophe Hennebelle, Vice-President, Human Resources and Corporate Affairs at Transat, told PAX in a telephone interview on Monday (Jan 4). “There was no consultation or previous discussion before this decision came.”
“We would have appreciated some warning.”
Hennebelle said he was “disappointed” in the government’s direction, especially as studies continue to support rapid testing in airports as a viable option for safely resuming travel and easing quarantine measures.
Even with a negative PCR test in hand, all travellers entering Canada will still have to quarantine for 14 days, a law that was introduced in March 2020.
“We are all for making travel more secure and safer, but we do see this new measure as something that is coming on top of what already exists,” said Hennebelle.
An “absurd” timeline
TravelOnly advisor Pat Probert of Bob Family Travel told PAX that he spent last weekend trying to cancel trips for affected clients who “panicked,” fearing they might not be able to return home if, for instance, they were unable to get tested or receive one within 72 hours (the required time frame).
“The Government of Canada put very little thought into this whole process and how it will affect not only consumers, but also the lives and existence of travel agents as a whole,” Probert wrote PAX in an email.
Probert also criticizes Ottawa for announcing the policy over the holidays, calling the whole timeline “absurd.”
He believes the government will “pull, change or alter the policy” they came out with on Dec 31.
It has created “potentially-devastating losses to clients – in the thousands of dollars – who did not have insurance like Manulife’s Cancel for Any Reason trip cancellation insurance, which would have covered them to cancel,” Probert said.
“…These new rules were implemented without much thought.”
Preparing customers for Jan. 7
Transat, like all airlines and tour operators, is preparing for the new travel requirement by posting an advisory on its website, in addition to training their teams in destination.
Customers will be required to present a receipt of their test – electronic or printed copy – at Transat’s check-in counters at airports, the website reads.
“There will be a certain period of time where you will not be able to do web check-in,” noted Hennebelle.
Transat has also posted a list of testing labs in select destinations, focusing mostly on the south.
A PCR test can range anywhere from $30 to $300 (USD), or more, and that doesn’t include the cost of taking a taxi to the facility (if testing isn’t available at the hotel).
The list of approved clinics is expected to change as Transport Canada continues to draft official details of the interim order.
“Transport Canada is doing a good job at keeping us informed as the draft evolves,” said Hennebelle, noting how the details are continuously changing.
Some countries may be exempt
According to several aviation sources PAX spoke with, the order may exempt some countries from the requirement if the destination does not have approved clinics readily available.
In other words, some countries may, at least initially, allow travellers to board a flight to Canada without having a negative PCR test in hand.
In cases like this, travellers arriving in Canada may be ordered to quarantine for 14 days at a federal facility by default.
Some countries may give travellers 96 hours, instead of 72, to obtain their PCR test due to logistical issues at the local level, sources say.
While the above scenarios have allegedly appeared in initial drafts of the new policy, nothing is 100 per cent confirmed (yet) and the details are subject to change.
Questions & criticism
The new policy has raised several questions and concerns from many within the travel industry.
In an interview with PAX on Monday (Jan. 4), Andrew Dawson, Chief Operating Officer at Sunwing Travel Group, wondered why Ottawa chose this direction, especially as the travel industry, for months, has been pushing for alternatives that “provincial health units were in favour of.”
“I would hope [the government] is looking at the best way to keep Canadians healthy and not just trying to [create] deterrents,” said Dawson. “We can support change providing that it’s science-based and that there’s logic to it.”
Dawson said Sunwing is trying to bring testing options to its resorts so guests don’t have to leave the hotel and visit a local clinic.
While the rollout is still a work in progress, PAX can confirm that some Sunwing Travel Group-owned hotels – select Royaltons, for example – have begun to offer on-site testing options for Canadians.
Several travel agents and executives PAX spoke with this week regard the new requirement as a major set-back to kickstarting the travel economy.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), too, has blasted Canada’s decision, calling it “callous and impractical” given the evidence that exists around testing as a suitable replacement for quarantine measures.
At Transat, it’s too soon to tell if, for example, the price of a PCR test would ever be incorporated into the cost of a vacation package, said Hennebelle.
“Hopefully, with a vaccine, that’s something that won’t be necessary,” he said.
There’s also the question of how airlines will be able to verify the authenticity of a PCR test in destination.
“It’s not entirely our responsibility to ensure that a test is legit,” said Hennebelle. “However, it is our responsibility to report it whenever we have doubts.”
Hennebelle said he would like to see the Canadian government implement a plan that will help travel “flourish” after the pandemic, as opposed to blocking it.
“We do believe that safe and secure travel is possible,” Hennebelle said.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today