As published in the National Post

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s airlines have done everything our political leaders could reasonably ask of them, and more.

When international travel restrictions took effect last March, they mobilized to bring home Canadians who were stranded abroad.

They were among the first air carriers anywhere to require passengers to wear masks, to provide crews with state-of-the-art personal protective equipment and to implement stringent aircraft cleaning.

For months, the industry has worked with scientists and public health officials to explore the effectiveness of various quarantine periods and to evaluate testing and rapid screening as ways to protect travellers and borders. They did all of this without question, despite the fact that few COVID-19 cases in Canada are attributed to travel exposures and there are no documented cases of onboard transmissions in Canada.

This past weekend, at the prime minister’s request, they took the unprecedented step of suspending all flights to the Caribbean and Mexico. Simultaneously, they overhauled their schedules to ensure that in-bound international flights land in one of only four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

These latest moves will inflict further financial damage on a sector that is already hemorrhaging cash, having experienced declines in passenger traffic of as much as 95 per cent.

In light of this, it is both baffling and tragic that — more than 10 months into the pandemic — the federal government still has not brought forward a comprehensive plan to save the industry from financial collapse.

When the first COVID-19 lockdowns were announced last spring, Ottawa’s official position was that it did not want to waste valuable time creating a range of “sector-specific” business support programs.

It chose instead to roll out broad-based initiatives such as the federal wage subsidy, which was designed to help any employer that experienced a significant drop in revenues.

That approach might have sufficed had the health emergency lasted only a few months, but it long ago stopped making sense. Only major changes to existing relief programs would have made them effective for the long haul.

No other group of major employers in Canada has been hit as hard as the airlines. At Air Canada and WestJet alone, well over 30,000 skilled workers have lost their jobs. In the aviation sector overall, almost half of all members of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, have either been laid off, furloughed or had their jobs eliminated.

In last September’s throne speech, the federal government hinted that financial support was on the way. Yet here we are in February and the industry is still waiting. Apart from Italy, Canada is the only country in the G7 that has not offered major financial aid to its domestic air carriers.

What are we waiting for? Without government assistance, a vital part of Canada’s national strategic infrastructure will suffer serious damage, causing long-term harm for Canadians.

Airlines, airports and the rest of Canada’s aviation sector are essential not just to the economy, but to countless communities from coast to coast to coast.

The longer Ottawa delays, the more costly the consequences. To survive, airlines have been forced to drastically cut back their routes, leaving some communities with no flights at all.

On top of that, training programs to replace retiring air traffic controllers have been cancelled, which will inevitably lead to future shortages.

Any major restart of air travel, when it comes, could be hampered if workers such as pilots, air traffic controllers and mechanics have not been able to maintain their skills and qualifications.

Pilots, for example, must keep flying or risk losing their licenses. Recertifying a pilot can take as long as two years and is extremely expensive.

Countries around the world have recognized that it is in their national interest to have a strong airline sector.

Airlines and aviation workers connect us to the world and to one another. The industry is a vital part of Canada’s trade in goods and services and a key linchpin in the tourism industry.

When the pandemic ends, Canadians will once again be eager to explore our vast country and get together with loved ones. Ottawa must step in now with a plan to safely reopen the aviation sector and ensure the survival of an essential service.