Drop In Demand, Border Lockdown Prompts Canadian Airline Cutbacks

Leisure specialist Sunwing suspended all southbound flights on Mar. 17.
Credit: Rob Finlayson

Coronavirus-driven demand declines and a ban on non-essential Canada-U.S. transborder travel have forced Canadian airlines of all sizes to cut back or stop flying. 

Leisure specialist Sunwing suspended all southbound flights on Mar. 17 and said it would focus on getting passengers back to Canada. The airline said the change would last through Apr. 8, but employee union Unifor confirmed that the airline has told staff that it will cease operations on Mar. 23. About 470 pilots represented by Unifor were issued layoff notices, effective Apr. 8. 

Regional domestic and transborder operator Porter Airlines will suspend flights on Mar. 20 and plans to resume service on June 1. The move will require layoffs across the company, the airline said. It did not provide details. 

“A temporary suspension of all flights allows the public health crisis to diminish and then time to restart our operations,” president and CEO Michael Deluce said. He will not take a salary during the operational stand-down. 

Montreal-based Air Transat said Mar. 18 that it would begin a gradual operational shutdown and keep aircraft parked through Apr. 30. It was still working out when it would cease operations.  

The moves come as officials in Canada and the U.S. agree to close their mutual border to all non-essential transit, which covers most commercial flights. While trade-related business would continue, all leisure travel and non-essential business trips would be discouraged, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Mar. 18. Canada also will order airlines to deny boarding to any non-Canadian or U.S. national seeking to fly into Canada.  

The restrictions “will last ... as long as we feel that they need to last,” Trudeau said. 

The demand drop and border restrictions are forcing cuts at Canada’s largest carriers. WestJet will suspend all of its international flights for 30 days, starting Mar. 22. It also plans to cut domestic capacity by “approximately” 50%, president and CEO Ed Sims said. 

Earlier this week, Air Canada said it would cut its capacity in half through at least April and hold off on several previously announced route additions. CEO Calin Rovinescu used the announcement to call on his government to provide financial assistance to the Canadian airline industry. Trudeau on Mar. 18 announced a C$27 billion ($18.5 billion) package of financial-relief measures aimed at small businesses and citizens. 

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.