Canada’s WestJet Airline cites ‘unprecedented cancellations,’ hitting 1,000 jobs

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FILE PHOTO: A WestJet Boeing 737 airplane prepares to land at Vancouver's international airport in Richmond,

By Allison Lampert

(Reuters) – Canada’s WestJet Airlines said on Friday it would reduce capacity, with schedule cuts that would mean furloughs, layoffs, unpaid leaves or reduced hours for about 1,000 employees, as demand slumped due to mounting government restrictions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Privately held WestJet, the country’s second-largest carrier, also introduced a hiring freeze. Calgary-based WestJet now has 5,700 active employees, a spokeswoman said.

WestJet’s announcement follows new Canadian rules that began Jan. 7 which required passengers to test negative for the coronavirus before boarding a plane bound for the country.

“Immediately following the federal government’s inbound testing announcement on Dec. 31, and with the continuation of the 14-day quarantine, we saw significant reductions in new bookings and unprecedented cancellations,” Ed Sims, WestJet president and CEO said in a statement.

Almost 200 flight attendants at WestJet and its affiliate carrier Swoop will be laid off, said the head of a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local, who blamed the government for the cuts.

Global airlines have called for the use of COVID-19 testing to ease travel restrictions that have crippled the industry, but Canada still requires passengers who have traveled abroad to self-isolate for 14 days.

Allison St-Jean, press aide to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, said on Friday the rules were introduced as a second wave of infections hits Canada and that “more than 100 countries have now put in place some level of testing requirement for international travelers.”

But airlines said they were not prepared to apply the surprise Canadian measure.

WestJet on Thursday said it had to deny 10 passengers from boarding one flight because they did not have eligible tests to meet the new requirement.

Air Canada, the country’s largest carrier, has said it also faced challenges.

Canada, which has provided emergency wage assistance to employers, is now in talks to provide aid to the ailing sector.

(Reporting by Rachit Vats in Bengaluru and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Maju Samuel, Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)

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