Air Canada is promoting the availability of both “leisure and business” flights to the United States even as that country continues to record explosive growth of coronavirus cases and as federal travel advisories continue to warn against any non-essential travel out of the country.
A recording on the airline’s customer booking telephone line plays the following message:
“Are you eager to reunite with friends and relatives in the U.S? Did you know that Canadians are permitted to travel by air to or from the U.S. for leisure or business? Review our step-by-step guide available on aircanada.com/travelguidelines to see what to expect while travelling.”
Canada has barred all incoming travel from the U.S. by land except in cases where doing so is deemed essential, and does not bar Canadians or eligible American citizens from travelling by air between the two countries.
The U.S., on the other hand, has a prohibition on non-essential entry at land borders but does not prohibit any incoming arrivals from Canada by air for any reason.
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The conflicting rules have been described as a loophole and infectious disease experts are warning that since many Canadians likely are not aware the loophole exists, promoting it may have the effect of encouraging travel that puts Canadians at risk of bringing the virus home with them.
“We’re in the time of a pandemic and that sort of undermines all the public health measures in place,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease and global health specialist at the University of Toronto.
“The States are having 100 deaths a day due to the pandemic and it’s completely out of control. So to have Canadians go down there for leisure purposes in the middle of a pandemic, it seems to be very unethical and I think that Air Canada really needs to look at what they’re doing.”
Air Canada defended its telephone line message in a statement to Global News and said even though government restrictions have caused a “virtual industry shutdown,” the airline has kept up basic operations and that activities like family reunification fall under the classification of leisure travel.
“This has made it possible to ship necessary cargo (including PPE, vital medical goods, essential machinery for business and perishable foods), repatriate Canadians abroad and facilitate required business travel and family reunifications (which are classed as leisure travel),” wrote Peter Fitzpatrick, spokesperson for the airline, in an email.
The Canadian government does not define non-essential travel and instead states that “it is up to the individual to decide what constitutes ‘non-essential travel,’ based on family or business requirements, knowledge of a country or region, and other factors.”
“Recognizing the importance of these services, government regulations for transborder travel specifically make allowances for people to fly between Canada and the U.S.”
He continued: “As a responsible corporation, Air Canada has put in place industry-leading biosafety measures to protect customers and employees travelling with us.”
The Canadian government did change some rules regarding family reunification in June: those changes exempted inbound foreign nationals who are “immediate family members” of Canadians from the ban on non-essential incoming travel.
It makes no mention of reuniting with friends.
Canadians returning from abroad must quarantine for 14 days.
They are required to provide an address and contact information upon re-entering the country and authorities can follow up by phone or in person to ensure they are respecting the quarantine.
Those who break their mandatory quarantine can face maximum penalties up to $750,000 and/or jail months in jail.
Dr. Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, said while it’s true airlines are taking many safety precautions to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, much of the risk comes from activities on either end of the flight.
“Just as anything else, especially with COVID, there is no such thing as perfectly safe,” he said.
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Just this week, public health officials in Waterloo warned that travel-related cases made up 18 per cent of new infections reported in the region last month, with most of those in individuals who had travelled to the United States.
The United States is the global epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak with cases raging across the country and more than five million cases recorded to date.
More than 150,000 Americans have died so far.
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The travel advice right now from the federal government warns Canadians against leaving the country for any non-essential reasons, even where it is possible.
“Avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice,” the travel advisory states.
“While some countries are partially opening their borders, we continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada.”
The U.S. regulations restricting land border crossings define non-essential travel as “travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature.”
Essential travel refers to “work and study, critical infrastructure support, economic services and supply chains, health, immediate medical care, and safety and security.”
However, those definitions do not apply in the case of entry by air, rail or sea travel as the U.S. places no restrictions on that under the land border regulations.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor in McMaster University’s department of medicine and an infectious disease specialist, said he understands the airlines are hurting.
“But at this time, as much as we’re dealing with COVID in Canada, the biggest risk for us in Canada for COVID is the rest of the world coming back to Canada,” he said.
Chagla noted the issue will likely come up in other forums as both airlines and other organizations make overtures to lure Canadians, who are viewed as relatively low-risk travelers due to the containment of the virus domestically so far.
“It’s not just airlines, it’s other organizations,” he said.
“There probably should be some social responsibility here in the sense that the border is closed for non-essential travel … but similarly, the messaging should also be coming not necessarily from the private corporations, but from public health and other agencies really to discourage [non-essential] travel.”
Global News asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair why the government has not banned non-essential air travel to the U.S. outright and whether the government believes promoting the existence of an air travel loophole is responsible.
Blair’s office referred questions to Global Affairs Canada, which said in a statement that Canadians are “strongly advised” to follow their recommendation to avoid non-essential travel, but that the responsibility is up to travellers.
“While our Government continues to recommend that Canadians avoid non-essential international travel, we recognize that safe and secure air travel is critical for Canadians to connect with loved ones and for those who rely on it to support their businesses,” said a spokesperson for Garneau.
“For information on airline operations, I invite you to contact them directly.”