WestJet CEO calls for end to vaccine mandates as COVID-19 border restrictions extended for another month

Federal COVID-19 restrictions at the Canadian border will be extended through at least June 30, but the vaccine mandate required for airline travellers and employees isn’t sitting well with the head of WestJet.

“As vaccines are not preventing the spreading of the virus since Omicron, there is no more logic to maintain it,” said WestJet CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech on Twitter.

“This will also relax some of the operational challenges at the airports.”

In a written statement to CTV News, WestJet reaffirmed the comments made by Hoensbroech.

“WestJet continues to advocate on behalf of our guests for the removal of pandemic policies that no longer align with science and data and have proven less effective against transmission of the most recent variants of COVID-19,” read the statement.

“While we are advocating for the immediate evolvement of policies that are unique to Canada, airlines remain one of the only federally regulated sectors with vaccination mandates, and we are obligated to remain compliant with Transport Canada’s mandate for our employees and guests.”

The Canadian Airports Council (CAC) has also expressed similar concerns as it blames pandemic measures on massive customs delays at airports across the country and insufficient staff.

CAC interim president, Monette Pasher said lineups are so long for security, check-in or customs, that some airports can’t physically maintain them in some cases.

“It would normally take a customs agent when you’re in front of them at their desk about 30 seconds to process a passenger, but now it can take anywhere from two to four times that or up to two minutes because they have to review health questions,” Pasher said.

“They have to vet passengers to determine if they are going to be randomly selected for testing in our airport environment. We have 50,000 people a day coming into our airports through international travel at our borders lot of people to move through with these processes

Pasher added that Canada is short about 900 CATSA agents across the country, which represents about one seventh of the entire security workforce.

NEW AGENTS BEING ADDED

The federal government announced last week that it will bring another 400 new agents, but Pasher said more needs to be done.

“We’re calling for three actions: we really need to relocate or remove the on-site mandatory random testing that’s happening in Canada, we need to remove some of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s duplicate questions at customs, and then the third measure is to remove the vaccine mandate,” she said.

Meanwhile at the Calgary International Airport, staff admit there have been some challenges, but not nearly to the extent of other major Canadian travel hubs like Vancouver and Toronto.

VP of Operations and Infrastructure with the Calgary Airport Authority Chris Miles said his team has a great relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Canada Border Services and CATSA locally.

“We’re always working with them to ensure that we’ve got the right passenger forecast so we make the experience for the guests as seamless as possible,” he said.

“Ultimately, anything that makes it simpler for travelers is going to promote a better guest experience is still a little cumbersome for some of our travelers coming through to be comfortable with those processes. So as those processes evolve and are ultimately relaxed, it’s going to be better for those guests, but we don’t see any impact to the flow coming through our airport as a result of the continued measures.”

As it remains, the Canadian government will continue to require foreign tourists to provide proof of being fully vaccinated for at least another month.

TRUDEAU DEFENDS DECISION

The decision announced by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada on Tuesday means that unvaccinated Canadian citizens or permanent residents are also still required to show proof of a molecular COVID-19 test taken prior to entering Canada and to quarantine for 14 days.

All travellers coming to Canada, regardless of citizenship, must also continue to submit their health information through the ArriveCan app prior to entry.

Responding to criticism of the government’s decision on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the measures are still necessary.

“The reality is, as much as people would like to pretend we’re not, we’re still in a pandemic. There are Canadians who die every single day because of COVID-19,” he said.

“I know people are eager to get back to things we love, but what will also further damage our tourism industry is if we get another wave.”

The border rules extension comes a day after Parliament voted down a Conservative motion to revert back to pre-pandemic guidelines for travel.

INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Some infectious disease experts said claims by WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech that vaccines will not prevent the spread of the Omicron variant are false.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta, said Omicron is much better at punching through vaccine protection, and even though it tends to have milder symptoms, it can still transmit infection.

“If people get infected they’re less likely to become severely ill if they’re vaccinated, so it’s still an important thing to do,” Saxinger said.

“We have a situation where with the initial strains, and with the initial vaccination there was extremely strong protection against infection and very strong protection as well, although it’s never been perfect against transmission, because you know, there will always be some infection that can occur after vaccination.”

Saxinger added that although the risk of transmitting is an odds game with the chance of the COVID-19 virus mutating into different strains, noting that ultimately vaccination provides another layer of protection.

“So I think that people should recognize that this is a long game and it’s not just a kind of a single policy and a single moment in time, but that there’s going to be some dynamic changes ahead and we really can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

CTV News anchor Tara Nelson interviews Dr. Lenora Saxinger about the COVID-19 vaccine

Dr. Jia Hu is the head of 19 to Zero, a more than 500 plus member coalition of multi-disciplinary experts hoping to build confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.

He said he understands the frustration within the airline sector because it’s one of the last industries requiring proof of vaccination amid a frenzy of operational delays.

“I wouldn’t say the vaccine doesn’t stop the transmission of Omicron at all and I certainly think vaccines are really important,” Hu said.

“The vaccine doesn’t work as well preventing the spread nearly as well as it did against other variants so I kind of sympathize with WestJet’s position, I don’t think it’s inappropriate or crazy to ask for an end to these things given where we are at with the pandemic today.”

Hu added that the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus on an airline is comparable to that of going to a bar or restaurant with friends. He noted that Canadians should travel if they feel comfortable, wear a mask to help prevent the spread and learn to live with COVID.

“I think airplanes are pretty darn good in terms of the air exchanges, but when you are sitting together next to a bunch of people then Omicron can be pretty infectious,” he said.

“I think the best policy is an adaptive, flexible one to have in case new variants really do emerge that are sort of out of this world and cause major disruption and then putting such measures like masking mandates back in would be important.”

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