Private international flights landing at smaller Canadian airports despite federal pandemic rules

An analysis by CBC News found more than 800 flights from international destinations have landed at a random sampling of eight airports across Canada that don't have quarantine hotels since the government mandated that all flights from abroad be routed through Toronto, Calgary, Montreal or Vancouver.

Privately owned recreational aircraft exempt from order to land only at 4 major airports

An analysis by CBC News of private flight data provided by FlightAware reveals that hundreds of private flights from international destinations arrived in Canada’s four major airports since the quarantine hotel rules came into effect on Feb. 22. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Hundreds of private flights from international destinations have landed at airports across Canada despite federal rules directing commercial and business air travellers to four main cities where a quarantine hotel system is in place. 

A CBC News analysis of data from Feb. 22 to April 26 provided by flight tracking company FlightAware reveals 884 private flights from international destinations to a random sampling of nine airports that don't have quarantine hotels, including in Hamilton, Ottawa, London, Ont., Kelowna, B.C., St. John's and Edmonton.

The aircraft captured in the data include luxury and executive private jets, recreational aircraft and helicopters. That data does not contain any information about passengers, including the number of people on board.

"If you're going to have a system in place that necessitates quarantining upon return from travel, it can't be sort of a two-tier system where some individuals get to bypass that system by virtue of whatever means of travel they're taking," said Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

Under rules introduced by the federal government on Feb. 22, all incoming international air travel is supposed to be directed through Toronto, Calgary, Montreal or Vancouver. The measure was put in place to control the spread of variants of the novel coronavirus. 

In addition to presenting a negative PCR test for COVID-19 before entering Canada, all travellers must take a test upon arrival, quarantine at a government-sanctioned hotel until the result is delivered and then quarantine at home for the remainder of the 14-day period.

Travellers must also take a test on their eighth day after arriving in the country.

Quarantine exemptions

The data from FlightAware reveals 1,618 private flights from international destinations to the four airports designated by the federal government as the only airports that can accept commercial international flights. 

By a wide margin, most of these flights (883) landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Of those, 256 came from Florida.

Foreign diplomats and some essential workers are exempt from quarantine hotel stays. But some passengers flying with private companies have been able to avoid quarantine hotels.

Mississauga, Ont.-based Chartright Air Group is among the dozens of private jet companies represented in the data. It did not respond to multiple CBC requests for comment, but on LinkedIn it advertises a one-hour PCR test upon arrival that the company says allows its clients to skip quarantine hotels. 

The post, from March, says "we will COVID test you so quickly you won't have time to get to the hotel."

(Chartright Air Group)
(Chartright Air Group)

CBC News reached out to multiple private jet companies to seek comment and clarification on their testing procedures. All but one declined to respond or comment. 

Business travel currently accounts for the bulk of air traffic in Canada and Canadian companies are following all the testing rules and, in some cases, using alternate testing protocols with accredited laboratories, says Anthony Norejko, CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association, which represents the private business aviation industry. 

He says business travellers are also getting take-home COVID tests. 

"Whatever airport you land at, CBSA [Canadian Border Services Agency] officers are distributing those kits to arriving business aviation passengers. And then, subsequent to that, if their determination is such that [travellers] need to go to the government-authorized accommodation, they're going there or they're declared essential and they can continue."

Norejko says some business travellers are having difficulty getting essential status. He said the industry would like to see more regional airports open for business travel.

He says that business travellers are also allowed to leave the country before quarantine is over.

Anthony Norejko, CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association, says business travel currently accounts for the bulk of air traffic in Canada. Canadian companies are following all the testing rules and, in some cases, using alternate testing protocols with accredited laboratories, he said. (Zoom)

Non-essential travel

While every Canadian has the right to enter the country, the federal government has been strongly advising against non-essential travel.

The FlightAware data reveals private executive and luxury planes like Gulfstreams, Learjets and Dassault Falcons have been arriving in Canada from sun destinations like the Turks & Caicos, Florida, Arizona, California, Tahiti, Hawaii, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Mexico. 

Commercial air travel to these destinations from Canada has largely been suspended.

Norejko says when a private company is contracted to fly to a sun destination, it isn't up to them to ascertain whether it is essential travel.

"Pick your destination and pick that point in time. We can't determine whether or not that is for a leisure purpose or a business purpose," Norejko said.

Parkes questions the ethics of flying to sun destinations during a pandemic.

"I do think that there is a moral responsibility to protect these locations and particularly locations that might not have the resources available to combat a massive outbreak that might occur there," Parkes said.

Dr. Leighanne Parkes, an infectious diseases specialist and microbiologist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, says that if there's going to be a system in place that requires quarantining after travel, it can't be a two-tier system where some individuals get to bypass. (Courtesy Jewish General Hospital)

Federal response: exceptions to the rule

The data shows flights from more than just vacation destinations. It shows aircraft arriving from other international cities, like Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo and Moscow, as well as countries like Brazil and Liberia. 

Many of the private flights entering Canada from the U.S. originate in states that have no current mask mandate and few, if any, COVID-related restrictions, like Florida and Arizona. 

In a lengthy email response to CBC News on behalf of CBSA, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Transport Canada, the federal government says there are no separate COVID-19 safety provisions for travellers arriving by private aircraft.

It does say privately owned "general aviation" aircraft are exempt from the NOTAM rules (Notice to Airmen) directing flights to Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. These tend to be smaller, privately owned aircraft used for recreational and leisure purposes. They are permitted to land in any airport designated as an authorized Airport of Entry (AOE) that has an open CBSA office. 

In its email, the government said, "the pilot and any passengers of such recreational aircraft are asked to follow the directions and health measures provided by the CBSA or quarantine officer upon arrival."

WATCH | Why private flights are allowed to bypass pandemic travel rules:

Private international flights landing at regional airports without quarantine hotels

3 years ago
Duration 2:03
Featured VideoA CBC News analysis of flight data shows hundreds of private flights have landed at regional airports, despite federal rules directing international air travellers to four main cities where a quarantine hotel system is in place.

The federal government says no matter where people land, all arriving passengers get government testing kits and that they are supposed to follow public health protocols.

It also says under special circumstances, private aircraft used for business purposes from international destinations can land in other approved airports of entry (AOE) like Edmonton and Kelowna. That includes flights landing for technical reasons, flights without passengers, flights carrying cargo, crew repatriation or ferry flights. 

Those that land under these circumstances also have to comply with federal and provincial health guidelines.

When it comes to business travel, some people classified as essential workers or people who cross the border regularly for work are exempt from quarantine. But the rules are more strict for cross-border workers arriving by air. Unlike those who cross by land, they are not exempt from pre-arrival testing.

PHAC said it does not have enforcement statistics specific to travellers arriving by private aircraft, including business travellers, but the agency says it does follow up with them to ensure compliance.

After this story was published, the office of the federal minister of transportation, Omar Alghabra, provided CBC News with an explanation for the higher number of private flights landing in Hamilton.  

The minister's office said Hamilton is also a base for private cargo operators. It said of 87 international flights that landed there between May 6 and May 12, 40 were carrying cargo.

"All passenger jet aircraft must land at one of our four airports and follow all quarantine rules, including hotel quarantine," Alghabra said in a statement. "Cargo jet aircraft carrying critical cargo like vaccines and PPE are exempt from this rule."

 'Definitely a class thing'

This patchwork of rules doesn't sit well with Safia Husain, 22, who has been studying psychology in Scotland and is visiting home for the first time in two years. With no direct flights to Vancouver or Victoria, Safia had to land at Toronto's Pearson Airport, where she's been quarantining in a hotel. 

"As a student, I don't make a lot of money, so the hotel quarantine is costing me a lot of money that I'm going to have to just make back in the summer," said Husain, who called it "a really stressful experience." 

Safia Husain, 22, is currently studying in Scotland and after two years of being away, she decided to visit home in Victoria. Unable to get a direct flight, Husain has had to pay for three nights in a quarantine hotel. (Zoom)

Husain spoke with CBC during her second night's stay. She has been given her negative test results and will continue her journey to B.C. on Wednesday, but said that she's still being charged for the full three nights. 

Husain is frustrated that some Canadians travelling privately can avoid quarantine hotels.

"It just kind of makes me feel like the government puts people, you know, with more money first," she said.

"People that are from an upper class … there's exceptions for them, and there's no exceptions for people that are in a working class or middle class. So it's definitely a class thing."

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