British Columbia

NDP health critic dismayed by crammed cabins, calls for airline relief package to help with COVID-19

Vancouver-Kingsway MP Don Davies says current pre-flight screening and post-flight contact tracing is inadequate and wants the federal government to offer a relief package to airlines to ensure people come before profits during the pandemic.

B.C. MP Don Davies says pre-flight screening and post-flight contact tracing needs improvement

Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver-Kingsway and the party health critic, wants stricter pre-flight screening and post-flight contact tracing protocols in place for the Canadian airline industry to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. (Eric Foss/CBC)

NDP health critic Don Davies says the federal government should provide the airline industry with a relief package to reduce the risk of carrying passengers infected with COVID-19 and to ensure profits are not coming before people during the pandemic.

Davies, the member of Parliament for Vancouver-Kingsway, claims nearly 40 flights have landed in Canada in the last two weeks carrying passengers that have tested positive for coronavirus. 

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control currently lists 31 flights with confirmed COVID-19 cases that have arrived in the province in that time frame.

A number of safety measures are already in place in airports across the country, including a requirement for all passengers and staff to wear masks, the completion of health-screening questionnaires and enhanced cleaning protocols. 

But Davies said when it comes to pre-screening passengers, keeping them at a safe distance from one another on the planes and having adequate contact tracing measures in place should someone be found positive, the industry could be doing better.

An Air Canada employee checks a passenger's temperature at YVR on June 18, 2020. The airline brought in mandatory temperature screening on May 4, 2020. (YVR)

The B.C. MP said airlines were voluntarily respecting physical distancing rules until July, 1 but Transport Canada did not make those measures mandatory and he thinks it is time it did. 

"I can't believe in Canada that we're allowing airlines to cram their cabins. People sitting you know elbow-to-elbow, chest-to-back in a flying tube," said Davies Monday on The Early Edition.

Davies worries that without a federal relief package, the beleaguered airline industry — which he said is important for the Canadian economy — could continue packing planes in an effort to stay afloat financially.

"We can't subordinate the flying public's health to the airline's bottom line," he added.

He is also concerned about being able to track down passengers that may have been on a flight with a positive case, a concern also raised last week by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

"One of the most challenging things we do is trying to get flight manifests a couple of days later when we recognize somebody who might be ill," said Henry.

Masks are currenrly mandatory for passengers flying on Canadian airlines. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

Davies said the federal government is advising Canadians not to fly unless it is absolutely necessary but said given the flare-ups in the United States and the number of flights that have already been flagged for confirmed cases, stricter protocols must also be in place.

"Taking strong measures before someone gets on a flight and also having really effective contact tracing afterwards is something that we've got to get in place right away," said Davies.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau told CBC News Network's Power & Politics today that the federal government has based its decisions on evidence and science and will continue to do so.

"We are collecting data on the possibility of transmission onboard aircraft. With everything that is being done on aircraft, with respect to cleaning between flights, with respect to the air flow system, with the way the air flows on the aircraft, there is no evidence, there is not a case yet of somebody actually picking up the virus onboard the aircraft," he said. 

Garneau said that back in March, when there were no social distancing restrictions in place and middle seats were being filled, no cases of transmission onboard aircraft were documented.

"And this is not just Canada that's looking at this, but other countries as well, [and the evidence] does not indicate transmission onboard aircraft," he said. 

Passenger Daniel Haber prepares to fly to Montreal from Vancouver at the end of June. He said he didn't think previous airline policies keeping passengers from sitting next to each other were terribly effective. (Harman/CBC)

In a statement, Transport Canada said it issued recommendations for operators to develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize physical distancing.

The department said it is "very difficult to consistently maintain recommended physical distance on board aircraft" but that other measures are in place, such as requiring that passengers wear masks, increasing space between agents and passengers, limiting food services and temperature screening passengers before they board a flight.

Davies did not detail what stricter pre-screening measures he would like to see implemented, but did point out Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said temperature testing is ineffective for detecting people with the virus.

To hear the complete interview with NDP MP Don Davies on The Early Edition, tap here.

With files from The Early Edition