Air Canada anticipates return of worldwide air travel by Christmas

An Air Canada vice president said he expects that by the winter holidays, Canadians will be able to board his company's planes and fly around the world — but it may be challenging to convince the public it's safe to fly.

Airlines changing cleaning process and working to educate public about safety measures

An Air Canada VP predicts Canada's airline industry could reopen worldwide by the end of the year. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

An Air Canada vice president suggests that by the time winter holidays roll around again, Canadians will be able to board his company's planes and fly almost anywhere in the world.

But Tim Strauss said he knows that one of the biggest tasks involved in bringing air travel back to life after pandemic restrictions lift will be convincing the public it's safe to fly.

"I think by Christmas you will see a significant amount of flying again," said Strauss, vice president of cargo at Air Canada. "We'll be flying to most places around the world and certainly domestically."

There may be fewer flights available and more connections than travellers are used to, he added.

The airline industry has been hammered by the pandemic. Some Canadian airlines have stopped flying entirely while others, including Air Canada, have scaled back more than 90 per cent due to the dramatic drop in demand. 

At a virtual Canadian Club Toronto event today, executives at several major airlines talked about what the North American airline industry could look like post-pandemic. Air Canada, Sunwing and American Airlines said corporate conversations about post-pandemic operations are focused on making sure planes are kept clean. Some airlines are changing how often they sanitize their planes and are even considering changes to how air is circulated in passenger cabins.

'We are rolling out completely new procedures'

"That is the absolute centre focus of almost all of our product discussions at this point," said Strauss, regarding cleanliness. "The whole industry will be working in tandem with one another to make sure it's good no matter what airplane you're on, anywhere in the world."

American Airlines said that, as it learned more about COVID-19 over the past two months, it overhauled its cleaning process and now considers it a key part of ensuring a plane is safe to fly.

"We're rolling out completely new procedures that are disinfecting all parts of the aircraft that a customer touches before every flight," said Jim Butler, senior vice president of airport operations and cargo at American Airlines. "Before this, while that disinfection happened, it tended to happen more overnight."

His airline is boosting its cleaning staff while looking for ways to make boarding more efficient, so that flights aren't delayed by cleaning.

The airline also has been handing out personal protective equipment to all its customers and limiting the number of people onboard by blocking off the centre seats. Butler said the most difficult part will be educating the public about the measures being taken.

People check in at an Air Canada ticketing kiosk at Pearson International Airport. Transport Canada has made it mandatory for travellers to wear masks on planes and in airports when physical distancing isn't possible. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

'We're modelling so many different scenarios right now'

"You have to make sure the customer is safe and ... that they feel safe. Both of those are equally important," he said. 

In Canada, Transport Canada has made it mandatory for all passengers to wear masks while onboard and in airports when they cannot physically distance two metres from others.

Sunwing's president Mark Williams said the industry doesn't know how soon the pandemic might end, or how quickly customers might come back.

"We're modelling so many different scenarios right now because we don't know what the future holds," he said. 

Williams said that when the industry revives, it will have to convince Canadians that all aspects of air travel are safe — including getting to the airport, checking in and going through security screening.

"People have to be aware of the safety," said Williams. "I'm not sure that leaving an empty seat between two people on an airplane is really going to have a significant impact on how safe you are onboard a plane from getting a virus. 

"I think there's other steps that we need to take. People need to understand what they are and what the risks are, to get them back to flying."

No point in travelling unless countries are open for business

Air Canada also is looking at how air is circulated onboard its planes.

"That's one of the things we need to adjust to make the flight safer," said Strauss. 

The World Health Organization cites research showing there's very little risk of communicable diseases being shared in-flight through a plane's ventilation system. The plane's cabins use filters which trap virus particles, according to the WHO's website.

While Air Canada predicts better times for the industry by Christmas, Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen and Company, points out that other countries will need to lift their pandemic restrictions and reopen their economies first, in order to convince people to travel.

"You can't go to London and quarantine for 14 days," said Becker. "If your vacation was going to be a long weekend and you go, it doesn't work.

"We need to get all these governments on the same page to kind of open things up. Everyone wants it to be done safely because no one wants the recurrence of cases."

Strauss said there are signs the economy is about to turn around. Manufacturers are moving parts around the world on Air Canada's cargo flights, he said, and his company is getting ready to transport retail goods from clothing manufacturers to North America.

"These are companies that only make these moves when they think there's an economy coming back," she said. "That makes me very optimistic, that we are at the beginning steps of a rebound."

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