Canadian airlines ramp up repatriation flights while cutting back regular service

Canadian airlines including Air Canada, WestJet, Transat and Sunwing are ramping up their efforts to bring Canadians stranded by the COVID-19 pandemic home, even as they are trimming other flight routes because of a drastic reduction in demand.

Domestic routes cut back as flights bringing stranded Canadians home increase

WestJet is letting 6,900 employees go amid the COVID-19 emergency, with 90 per cent of those leaving voluntarily, the Calgary-based airline said Tuesday. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian airlines including Air Canada, WestJet, Transat and Sunwing are ramping up their efforts to bring Canadians stranded by the COVID-19 pandemic home, even as they trim other flight routes because of a drastic reduction in demand.

Air Canada announced Sunday it would soon be flying two flights out of Morocco to bring home 444 Canadians who have been stranded there since the country effectively closed its borders to deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The flights will be from Casablanca to Montreal and will happen on Monday and Wednesday this week.

On Monday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the government of Peru will allow Air Canada to operate three flights out of the country to get Canadians home.

"Our priority at this time is to ensure that we can repatriate as many people as possible," Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu said. "In the last week alone, we have brought more than 200,000 people back to Canada and we plan to keep operating flights to the end of March and beyond so Canadians continue to have a way home."

Even as Air Canada is working to bring Canadians home from certain hotspots, the airline says it is postponing launches or extending the temporary suspension of several routes it had planned to offer in Canada and around the world.

A complete list of the suspended routes is available here.

Sunwing, Air Transat, WestJet making changes

Sunwing, which flies to various sun destinations, said it operated 30 repatriation flights on Sunday alone and has so far brought back 60,000 Canadians since it ramped up repatriation efforts a week ago.

"The last repatriation flights will operate on Monday, March 23, after which time all Sunwing flights will be temporarily suspended," the airline said in a statement. "At the current estimate, Sunwing will be operating almost 400 flights and spending more than $26 million to bring these Canadians home safely, at no extra cost to the customer."

Montreal-based airline Transat AT says it expects to have repatriated all of its customers abroad by April 1, at which point it will wind down all of its flights until the end of the month at least.

"We are striving to ensure that the number of operating flights and available seats is sufficient to bring back all our customers to their country of origin as quickly as possible," the airline said in a statement Sunday.

Calgary-based airline WestJet is taking similar steps, reducing the number of flights it offers within Canada by about half because the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the demand for air travel. But the airline says it is nonetheless committed to "keeping critical economic lifelines open for the 38 communities we serve across Canada."

Most of the changes involve the airline making fewer flights between Canadian destinations, as opposed to complete cancellations. The airline has a complete list of its schedule adjustments on its website here.

Even as the airline is scaling back its domestic travel schedule, it is beefing up its attempts to get Canadians who are stranded abroad during the unfolding health crisis home. 

Starting on Monday and for the two days that follow, the airline says it will "operate 34 repatriation flights to international and transborder destinations to ensure the safe return of WestJet guests and Canadians who remain abroad."

"These new flights are in addition to the 10 flights that WestJet has operated this week after the prime minister announced it was time to come home. WestJet will continue to add flights as the need is identified," the airline said.

All flights will depart Canada as empty planes and return with as many people as possible. All routes are from destinations in the U.S., Central America and Caribbean, including Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Bahamas, Mexico, Cuba, Barbados, Costa Rica, Jamaica, St. Martin, Belize and Aruba.

Eight of the planned extra flights are already full, the airline says. A complete list of repatriation flights can be found here.

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