Canada’s COVID-19 Conundrum

Credit: Calgary Airport, Wikimedia Commons, Daniel

Remember the “Before Times,” when crossing the border to do business in Canada (or vice versa) was easy? Call ahead, activate your CANPASS or file an APIS, fly to a port of entry (POE), clear customs, and go about your business. Easy peasy.

It was a two-way system adapted to accommodate each country’s largest trading partner--including the 80% of international business aviation traffic that routinely traveled back and forth across the Canadian/U.S. border. At the annual NBAA International Operators Conference, everybody had a story about an indignity suffered while under the lens of the respective customs officials, but commerce--and crossings--flowed. Always. The intertwined fortunes of both countries depended on it.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the exigencies of isolation and consequent damping of travel--especially across borders. Welcome to the “locked-down twenties” where we starve the virus by staying home, thereby also starving our incomes. The binding protocols are necessary--and working--but painful all around. Nav Canada, the country’s privatized air navigation service provider (ANSP), claims reductions year-on-year from January 2020 for domestic and international traffic in its airspace of, respectively, 30 and 45%. “We are not immune to the financial impact of the COVID pandemic,” Nav Canada’s Marie-Pier Berman, assistant vice president, ATS service delivery, says. “There’s nowhere near the volume of traffic as in the past, and as a result, the COVID virus has had a significant impact on our revenues.” Likewise, the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) estimates business aviation traffic for the same 12-month period was reduced by 30-40%.

Other international markets have declined 50-80%. “We are watching it by market, all of which have been affected by the pandemic,” Berman continues. “It will take a long time for it to return, probably a couple years depending on the markets. Airlines have reduced flights and parked aircraft, and it all compounds together. There is less availability among the various customer bases for both airlines and business aviation.”

Holding the Country Together

Anyone who has flown into Canada’s far north and seen Douglas DC-3s operated by Buffalo Airlines and other frontier air-freight haulers on remote airport ramps knows that aviation holds that vast slice of Canada together. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Berman say, “A lot of the northern communities in Canada are supported by air transportation, and they are the ones maintaining the domestic market. But the high-level airspace structure has been impacted.”

This winter, government-imposed restrictions--some would call them draconian--just about shut off Canada to any meaningful business travel. “The [government-mandated] quarantining is obviously keeping people from coming into the country. Right now, the government has provided more strict guidelines going out and especially coming back in--for the latter, there’s a 14-day quarantine once you’re here. Any passenger flights must comply with this, private or charter from any country; there’s an exclusion for cargo only,” explains Berman.

Then there was the business-aviation-hobbling requirement in February from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) that all flights entering the country must land at one of four major hubs: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or Montreal. “There is a NOTAM directing all traffic to these four major fields,” CBAA President Anthony Norejko points out, “and CBAA is looking to find exemptions for essential business travel. But the government believes the variants posed by allowing access to all Canadian POEs constitute a risk.”

This year, the CBAA was instrumental in enabling business aviation to participate in a COVID-19 filtering trial at Calgary International Airport. (A land border crossing was monitored at Coutts, Alberta.) During the trial, passengers had to undergo two COVID-19 tests, the first upon arrival and the second between the sixth and seventh day of their stay. Participants totaled 47,604 as of Feb. 4. The first test was administered at the POE (Calgary). “Results of infections among passengers after the first test was 1.44% positive,” Norejko says. “After the second test, it was 0.74. So the total was that 1.11% tested positive during the program.

A Convenient Scapegoat

“In the coming weeks, we expect additional measures likely involving quarantine periods and hotels,” Norejko continues. “It’s been difficult to understand the [government’s] rationale behind it. Based on the Calgary/Coutts trial, spreading remains extremely low statistically, and we have been calling for a testing strategy since last June, [and other than the Calgary/Coutts trial] the government has not taken any responsible action for travelers. It seems the traveling public is the convenient scapegoat [for spreading the disease].”

The challenge now is that, as of Feb. 4, all traffic has to flow through those four major airports. And, Norejko says, “You are going to incur more cost to get to your destination if it’s not one of those four airports. In the coming weeks, the government of Canada is thinking about additional measures. Currently, we are in a state of decline in [COVID-19] cases--our problem [like everywhere] is vaccination. COVID cases have kept coming down since January, and now we are facing other restrictions that CBAA believes are unnecessary.” A competent testing strategy is what is needed, Norejko maintains. “We’ve advocated since June 2020 for one--and no funding or rationale has been provided for it to date.”

Much of the cost of a visit to Canada is at the back end of the trip. “If you took off from an airport that is not one of the four majors, it’s your return that will represent the cost factor because you have to return to one of the four primary airports [before continuing your journey to your actual destination].

Travel to the U.S. by Canadians will continue but with more care and concern for planning. “You have to pay attention to all the regs for all the destinations, as they change constantly,” Norejko says. “Where am I going and what are the specific COVID tests required? For a day trip to the U.S., you would have to demonstrate a negative PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test leaving and returning. You would have to demonstrate a negative result at least 72 hr. prior to entry into the U.S. and the same for the return to Canada.”

Currently, Toronto is the only one of the four COVID-designated POEs requiring a PCR test for passengers upon arrival. “You could fly to MontreaL-- no test required on arrival--then fly to Ottawa, and you are now flying domestically with no testing required,” Norejko observes. Think carefully about which of the four airports will work for you in this regard if planning a trip to Canada.

For Americans going to Canada on day trips, “You get one PCR test for entry into Canada,” Norejko says, “then go about your business, and then you can use the results from the same one you did on the departure from the U.S.”

Operating domestically, the regimen becomes complicated, as some provinces are more restrictive than others--up to 14-day quarantines in places like St. Johns, Newfoundland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Winnipeg, Manitoba. “The quarantine act does allow you to leave internationally if you test positively,” Norejko says. “To stay, you need a plan and a 14-day place to stay…but where you stay may change to something like a designated quarantine hotel. In the coming weeks, additional measures are being contemplated, so this may change — and probably to the more restrictive side. Plan ahead and stay tuned — we can’t stress this enough.”

Concerning Customs, the CANPASS program may have been a point of cross-border celebration, but it is not functioning in the time of COVID. “A key change is that you will be met by Customs wherever you land,” Norejko explains. With CANPASS, all operators had to do previously was call in and get a clearance number, but in the context of COVID, arriving flights will be met by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents.

More information about traveling to Canada during COVID-19 appears here.