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COVID-19: Air Canada to temporarily cut at least 1,500 jobs, suspend 17 foreign routes

Air Canada will temporarily suspend service on 17 routes to the U.S. and other international destinations until at least April 30

MONTREAL — Air Canada will temporarily lay off 1,500 unionized employees and an unspecified number of management staff as it cuts more routes in response to harsher travel restrictions.

Air Canada will temporarily suspend service on 17 routes to the U.S. and other international destinations until at least April 30, the company said Tuesday.

"We are further reducing our transborder and international commercial schedule as a result of COVID-19," a spokesperson for Air Canada said. "Affected customers with bookings will be contacted with options, including alternate routings."

The route suspensions in the U.S. include flights to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver and Fort Myers, Air Canada said. The earliest flight suspensions to the U.S. will go into effect Feb. 14.

Air Canada is also suspending flights to Bogota from Montreal, London and Tokyo from Vancouver, and Bogota, Dublin and Sao Paulo from Toronto, among other routes, the company said.

Flights from Toronto to Tel Aviv will continue to be suspended, and flights from Toronto to Dubai and Hong Kong will have their startups postponed.

The layoffs and route cuts come as Canada rolls out stricter measures to reduce international travel, including mandatory hotel quarantines for new entrants.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, which represents flight attendants at Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge, blamed the cuts on the government's new travel restrictions and said Ottawa wasn't doing enough to help the airline sector weather the pandemic. 

"We appreciate the need for measures to prevent the spread of new variants of COVID-19 in Canada," Lesosky said. "But restrictions have to be accompanied by solutions."

At the end of January, Canadian airlines agreed to suspend all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30, at the request of the federal government.

Last week, Air Canada said it planned to temporarily halt operations at Air Canada Rouge, which primarily operates the company's flights to Mexico and the Caribbean. The service cuts involved temporary layoffs of around 80 employees.

Swoop, a low-cost carrier owned by WestJet Airlines Ltd., said it notified employees on Monday that would reduce its workforce by 36 flight crew members as of Feb. 16, in light of the new restrictions.

In addition to flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, Swoop also suspended international flights from Edmonton, given a new federal mandate that all international flights land in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or Montreal.

"Swoop has adapted our operations throughout the pandemic to ensure Canadians have access to affordable essential travel," Swoop spokeswoman Denise Kenny said. "We continue to operate a domestic-only schedule reflective of the demand of our travellers."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continued to crack down on international travel, saying Tuesday that as of Feb. 15, anyone entering Canada through a land border will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. 

A previous requirement for international travellers to show negative test results, which went into effect on Jan. 7, applied only to air travel. Airlines said they saw an immediate drop in bookings once the requirement was implemented, leading to another round of route cuts and layoffs by Canadian carriers in January.

In a statement Tuesday, Stephanie Kusie, the Conservative shadow minister of transport, blamed the widespread job losses in the airline sector to the Liberal government's handling of the pandemic.

"Conservatives will continue to call for the certainty and competence that airline workers and those who rely on the aviation sector deserve," Kusie said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.

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Jon Victor, The Canadian Press