Sports

Canadian athletes, organizers brace for difficulties of flying in COVID-19 era

Flying won't be getting easier for anyone as airlines and airports prepare to accommodate travelers while dealing with global pandemic.

Swimming Canada among teams maneuvering to accommodate increased airfare

Canadian Para-swimmer Shelby Newkirk is among many athletes likely to be affected by the increased stress and delays of air travel caused by COVID-19. (Submitted by Bob Baker)

Flying always presents challenges for Para-swimmer Shelby Newkirk.

There are issues with her wheelchair, hurdles getting through security, protocols that vary from airport to airport.

"There's definitely some things as a Para-athlete you kind of have to plan out that a lot of people don't realize," said the 23-year world record holder from Saskatoon, who has dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder similar to Parkinson's that affects movement, balance and coordination.

Flying won't be getting easier for anyone as airlines and airports prepare to accommodate travelers while dealing with COVID-19.

People needing to fly will pay more for tickets, can expect four-hour lineups checking in, will need to wear some sort of protective equipment and might not be taking their luggage to the airport with them.

This new normal will put a strain on the budgets of amateur sports organizations while forcing them to rethink the size of teams, where to hold training camps and what competitions to attend.

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"Do we try to do things more virtually?" said Mathieu Gentes, chief operating officer for Athletics Canada. "Do we have to go to all these things? Do we send smaller teams? Do we have teams where athletes have to pay a levy?

"I don't know all those answers yet, but I think those are the types of questions we're going to have to be posing ourselves."

Swimming Canada braces for budget increase

Ahmed El-Awadi, chief executive officer with Swimming Canada, said travel accounts for between 15 to 20 per cent of his budget. That will increase as airfares rise.

Swimming Canada also plans to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to purchase protective equipment like masks and gloves for athletes and staff flying.

"Right off the bat, even without booking a plane ticket, there are going to be some costs involved," El-Awadi said.

There will also be fewer seats on airplanes.

"We may not be able to get the amount of seats we want on one aircraft [so] we're going to have to factor that into account and split our human resources," El-Awadi said. "It gets more complicated [with] the younger athletes, so it's possible we might have to increase our staff count when travelling."

Significant travel changes expected

John Gradek, a lecturer and coordinator of the Global Aviation Leadership Program at McGill University, predicts airfares will increase by 20 to 30 per cent as carriers compensate for reduced seating capacity due to social distancing and increased cleaning costs.

The time in lineups will grow as airports deal with social distancing and measures to keep staff and travels safe. Passengers will probably have to print boarding passes at home.

The way luggage is handled, especially for sports teams with plenty of bags and oversized containers, will change.

"I think the days of checked baggage coming with you when you check in and you picking up your own checked baggage at your point of destination, they are pretty well done," he said.

Instead, carriers will organize to have bags picked up 24 hours ahead of time. Upon arrival, your bags will be delivered to your final destination.

Gradek foresees the use of overhead bins being banned, meaning carry-on luggage would be restricted only to items that can be placed under a seat. That would affect athletes who carry personal equipment on the plane with them.

'It's not worth risking athletes or staff...'

Both swimming and athletics hold training camps at warm-weather facilities out of the country. Now with escalating travel costs combined with the possibility of facing 14-day quarantines in some countries, the organizations plan to stay at home as much as possible.

"It's not worth risking athletes or staff if we can provide something similar within in the country," El-Awadi said.

The number of competitions attended may also be affected.

"That could be a major game changer in terms of looking at the different competitions," Gentes said.

The long waits, wearing protective gear, and concerns about the virus could add another layer of stress for athletes.

"That's where our mental performance coaches will come into play," Gentes said. "That's just something that's going to become part of the performance plan."

El-Awadi said monitoring the health of Para-athletes, many who have compromised immune systems, will be especially important.

"We will be extra diligent with our medical teams in terms of whether certain athletes can travel," he said.

Newkirk said changes to how luggage is handled could delay athletes returning home from competitions. She also worries about not being allowed a carry-on because she likes keeping her medicines, caps, googles and swimsuits with her.

Like many Para-athletes, Newkirk also has a latex allergy, so she is concerned about people around her wearing latex gloves.

But like all other travelers, Newkirk said athletes will have to adjust to the changes.

"There will be things we'll have to figure out, just as we will with daily life," she said.

The increased hassles and stress created by travel won't stop Newkirk from competitive swimming.

"The pool is where I've found my home," she said. "That's where I have the sense of freedom and where I can be competitive. For me personally, I think the love of the sport will keep me in it."

About the Author

Jim has written about sports in Canada for more than 40 years for The Canadian Press, CBC Sports, CFL.ca and Swimming Canada. He has covered eight Olympic Games and three Paralympics. He was there the night the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and has covered 12 Grey Cups.

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