Air Canada fires back at B.C.'s criticism of Canadian airlines' COVID protocol

Air Canada has shot back at recent comments by B.C. health officer Bonnie Henry about airlines' need to improve COVID safety protocols, noting there has been a lack of communication between the two sides over the issue.

A statement sent to Business in Vancouver Thursday evening from the airline noted Air Canada has been following strict Transport Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada guidelines on screening passengers and collecting information for contact tracing "for several months."

In addition, Air Canada said it has not "had any requests for flight manifest contact information from any Canadian health authority recently, and specifically from B.C. since March, 2020."

"We are frankly baffled at all of the foregoing," the statement said. "Air Canada has attempted over several weeks to contact Dr. Henry and [B.C. health minister] Adrian Dix - without success - for dialogue."

On Wednesday, Henry said - in response to the province identifying several flights arriving at Vancouver International Airport last week having COVID-19 cases onboard - that contact tracing for airline passengers need to be improved, since getting flight manifests for the impacted arrivals have been “challenging,” according to the health officer.

Henry also said more flexibility for rebooking or cancellations from the airlines is needed for passengers who are too sick to travel - another point where Air Canada said much is already in place to facilitate those who need to change their itineraries.

"The following has been posted on for several weeks now," the statement said.

"'We have implemented highly flexible and expanded booking options. You can make a one-time change without a fee for all new or existing bookings made through July 31, 2020 for original travel between March 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021. If you booked directly with Air Canada and you need to cancel for any reason, you can convert your ticket to an Air Canada Travel Voucher that has no expiry date or to Aeroplan Miles...'"

On Thursday, B.C. premier John Horgan said while the province stands firm in support of Henry's statements, the government's jurisdiction does not allow it to affect change in the ways that airlines operate.

Air Canada emphasized that the airline is "most definitely aligned with Dr. Henry’s advice to stay home if one is not feeling well, and to ensure that one adheres to all hygiene practices including frequent hand-washing, etc." The statement also noted sanitary protocols have long been put in place.

In response to observers who have criticized the airlines' decision to reopen bookings on the middle seat on flights, Air Canada said it will still reseat people for additional space where possible. Additionally, passengers can change flights without additional cost if they feel they need more space on a flight.

But passengers who do not change flights should rest assured that Air Canada follows a biosafety plan that "builds on the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization... that a multi-layered strategy to COVID-19 safety is most effective," the airline's statement said. As such, measures such as health/temperature screening pre-flight, mandatory mask-wearing and the use of HEPA air filters onboard should all contribute to a strong level of safety, according to Air Canada.

"It is worth noting that onboard transmission of infectious diseases is exceedingly rare," the statement concluded.

According to federal authorities, since June 29, at least 26 flights arriving at Canadian airports from both domestic and international locations have had confirmed COVID-19 cases onboard.