An unfathomable year for Canada’s airlines: 2020 in review

An unfathomable year for Canada’s airlines: 2020 in review

TORONTO — The updates from the airlines started coming in the early weeks of 2020. First it was the suspension of flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai. By late February Hong Kong was added to the list. On March 10, Air Canada announced it was temporarily suspending all flights to and from Italy.

And then everything changed.

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11 and two days later, on the eve of March Break, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, asked Canadians to cancel or postpone all non-essential travel outside of Canada. On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians abroad to get home. And on March 25 Canada invoked the Quarantine Act, mandating a 14-day quarantine for anyone returning to or arriving in Canada from outside the country.

These are dates that are etched in the collective memory of the travel industry.

But there’s another 2020 date that stands out: Nov. 9. That’s when the world heard the news that Pfizer and BioNTech had a COVID-19 vaccine. More vaccine news followed in subsequent weeks.

The travel industry finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel after 8 months of cancellations, refunds and seeing travel all but come to a standstill.

Through it all Canada’s airlines have championed science-based measures to get travellers back in the air and keep the industry, and the economy, going amid the pandemic. They brought in health and safety protocols with lightning speed and efficiency. They pared their networks down to a fraction of their normal schedules, and kept flights going for essential workers.

All this after the early weeks and months of the pandemic when airlines – with help from travel agents and tour operators – repatriated thousands of stranded Canadian travellers, as Canada and other countries closed their borders.

Now at the end of 2020, we take a look back at the year in the airline industry.


Air Canada’s June 2020 schedule, announced May 8, included service to just a handful of destinations in the Caribbean and Europe. But it wasn’t the number of flights or destinations that mattered. It was the fact that regular commercial service was available at all. And it was an important first step in restarting travel.

As Canada’s flag carrier Air Canada’s leadership role amid the pandemic has included everything from being the first airline in North America to bring in mandatory pre-boarding temperature checks, to its CleanCare+ program, both introduced in early May. Air Canada was also a key player in the #TimetoTravel initiative, launched in June.

By the beginning of the summer, after months of pushback from passengers determined to get their refunds, Canada’s airlines were fielding demands from a House of Commons health committee, asking why they hadn’t issued refunds.

Air Canada has long pointed out that it has refunded more than $1 billion dollars in refundable tickets since the start of 2020.

By July 2020 the airline had also reduced its fleet by 79 planes, laid off 20,000 employees and brought in a cost-savings initiative of $1 billion.

The pandemic has been devastating for Canada’s airlines. Talk of a bailout for the industry kicked into high gear in November when Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced that talks would start on a financial assistance package, one that would be contingent on refunds, putting travel agents in a precarious position with the possibility of up to $200 million in commission recalls.

In June Air Canada announced the indefinite suspension of service on some 30 domestic routes, and the closure of 8 of its stations at Canadian airports, amid the pandemic. Air Canada had said it would wait on the bailout talks before cutting more routes but then on Dec. 9, one month after Garneau’s bailout announcement with no further details disclosed to the general public, Air Canada announced further cuts, all in Atlantic Canada, taking effect Jan. 11, 2021. WestJet has also had to cut much of its service in Atlantic Canada.

Air Canada President and CEO Calin Rovinescu has said he’s open to providing refunds as a condition for the federal government’s proposed financial assistance for the airline industry. But he strongly opposes any government-owned stakes in airlines. In an interview last month with BNN, he said government ownership in airlines has historically been a “colossal failure”.

Air Canada’s strong financial position has sustained the company through 2020, what Rovinescu characterizes as a deep hibernation, with operations at approximately 10% of passenger revenues compared to last year. The airline’s new cargo-only-flight business, the first of many pivots launched in March 2020, is a bright spot, passing the 4,000th flight mark this month.

By successfully establishing a dedicated, cargo-only operation, the airline says Air Canada Cargo is well-positioned to play a key role in carrying COVID-19 vaccine shipments for Canadians and to capture future growth opportunities in the global air cargo market.

Coming into the pandemic Air Canada had one of the strongest balance sheets in the global airline industry. Rovinescu called it “somewhat of a rainy day fund. We never expected this level of rainy day.”

Testing is “the silver bullet”, he says. Along with McMaster HealthLabs, Air Canada launched a COVID-19 testing project with the GTAA at Pearson Airport in September.

Last month an interim report on the testing project showed that 99% of study participants tested negative for COVID-19, with 1% testing positive.


Sunwing had more than 100,000 passengers in destination when the borders began to close in mid-March. All of those travellers were repatriated on Sunwing flights home – along with more than 3,300 who weren’t even Sunwing passengers. Sunwing offered available seats on its repatriation flights from southern destinations to stranded Canadians, free of charge – including for non-Sunwing customers.

“We understand a lot of Canadians are still stranded outside the country and struggling to get home,” said Stephen Hunter, CEO of Sunwing Travel Group on March 20. “That’s why we want to open up any extra capacity we have. It’s the Canadian thing to do.”

In early May Sunwing introduced new flexible booking options and later it unveiled Safe with Sunwing, in partnership with Medcan, ensuring the health and safety of Sunwing passengers across their entire vacation experience.

The company’s strong vertical integration came into play in an unexpected way, as it streamlined health and safety protocols across its many product divisions. “We are the only travel company that owns the airline you fly on, the transfer buses that transport you to and from your hotel and own and operate over 30 hotels throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico,” said Hunter.

The first Sunwing passengers began arriving back in Cancun and Montego Bay in August. Things really ramped up in October when Sunwing announced it was resuming flights on Nov. 6 with departures to Mexico, Jamaica, the D.R. and Costa Rica. More destinations would follow, including Aruba and Cuba.


Transat’s Chief Distribution Officer, Joe Adamo, had valuable advice for agents wondering how to talk to their clients about travelling this year.

In an interview with Travelweek this summer, he told agents not to wait until “the light switch moment”, whether that’s a vaccine, or travel restrictions suddenly lifting. Even then Adamo sensed we were in for the long haul. “Keep the faith – and stay close to clients,” he said, adding that agents should feel confident to walk clients through the options that are available to them.

Adamo made his remarks about a month after Transat resumed its commercial flights with 22 destinations in Europe the South, the U.S. and Canada, on July 23. It was an important day for the company, and for the industry. Said Annick Guérard, Transat’s Chief Operating Officer: “July 23 is, and will remain, a very special day in the history of Transat. We are gradually resuming our flight operations after a 112-day shutdown.”

Later, on Aug. 4, Transat announced its winter 2020-2021 program with more than 40 destinations, traditional Mexico and Caribbean sun favourites with some Europe routes as well. The company’s product was strengthened by its Traveller Care program and Book with Peace of Mind.

Transat’s decision to cancel its Western Canada program to the South and the U.S. was “very painful,” said Adamo. “We had a good long run in Western Canada, with great relationships with travel agents and good customer loyalty. But at this point we can’t efficiently operate planes out of Western Canadian gateways. It’s a difficult choice we’re making. We will operate more efficiently out of Ontario and Quebec gateways.” The program’s cancellation triggered a wave of refunds and commission recalls.

Transat’s proposed acquisition by Air Canada has also been impacted by the pandemic. Originally negotiated for $720 million in 2019, the price tag was $190 million by October 2020. Air Canada’s President and CEO Calin Rovinescu says Air Canada intends to complete its acquisition of Transat, at the reduced price and on modified terms.


In 2019, the big news was WestJet’s acquisition by Onex Corp. (which kicked off a banner week of news for Canada’s airlines, with Air Canada’s proposed acquisition of Transat announced just three days later).

In 2020, like every airline around the world, WestJet is navigating the pandemic as best it can.

From the start WestJet’s President and CEO Ed Sims was visible amid the crisis. In his own words, while “it may sound bizarre” to hear an “airline guy” encourage people to stay at home, that’s exactly what he did in a heartfelt video message to WestJetters and Canadians in early April. Later that month WestJet announced it was removing up to 4,000 flights a week from its domestic schedule. WestJet also announced its new travel hygiene program, part of its ‘Safety above all’ initiative, detailing what WestJet passengers can expect when travelling to ensure their health and safety.

By June WestJet had changed its refund policy to offer refunds for select flights that include a U.S. or UK destination. That move was followed by Europe flights.

Then on Oct. 22 WestJet announced it would voluntarily provide refunds to original form of payment for passengers with flights cancelled by WestJet and Swoop, from any time period, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an Oct. 21 WestJet Blog post titled ‘Refunds – It’s About Time’, Sims had this to say: “We understand completely that the title of this blog post is what most Canadians are feeling right now. You’re looking for a refund and we get it.”

He noted that since March, WestJet had done everything it could to reduce costs and streamline operations in the face of a 95% drop in demand. “We went 72 days in a row where cancellations outstripped bookings, something that has not happened – ever – in our almost 25-year history,” he said.

Less than two weeks later, WestJet Vacations began offering refunds for eligible WestJet Vacations bookings. Although the eligibility window was relatively narrow, the announcement, and concern that other airlines and tour operators would follow, triggered many agents to take action in the face of potential mass commission recalls that could take up to $200 million out of travel agents’ pockets.

WestJet has also been the forefront of COVID-19 testing initiatives, starting with the pilot project at Vancouver International Airport announced in August, followed in October by the initiative at Calgary International Airport, one that offers reduced quarantine time and one that has garnered attention from other provinces, including Ontario.

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