Two hours after WestJet announced on Wednesday that it was curtailing its flights to and from Atlantic Canada, an email went out to all MPs and senators from Liberal MP Chris Bittle, parliamentary secretary to Transport Minister Marc Garneau.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of the Canadian economy, but few industries have been more negatively impacted than the air sector,” Bittle wrote in a letter first obtained by Radio-Canada.
“Many of you have reached out to us to share your thoughts about the current impact of COVID-19 on the air sector. At this stage, we would like to hear from all parliamentarians [on] what is required to support a robust air sector in Canada.”
Last month’s throne speech promised “further support for industries that have been the hardest hit, including travel,” and the government’s consultations on support for the air sector apparently were due to start this week.
While demands for government aid to the air travel sector have been building for months, WestJet’s regional retreat will drive those demands to a new level.
For the federal government, the case for doing something to prop up airlines and airports might be stronger than the case for doing nothing. But even if the government wants — or needs — to intervene, it still has to work out a way to do so that it can defend politically.
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King was among those calling on the federal government to take action on Wednesday. But it’s the region’s own “Atlantic bubble” pandemic policy — which imposes registration requirements on travellers from outside of Atlantic Canada and compels them to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in the region — that has caused the demand for flights in and out of the region to crater.
The Liberals probably don’t want to be blamed if reductions in air service across the country become permanent. And sure enough, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told CBC’s Power & Politics that he came away from a conversation with Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc on Wednesday with the impression that “something’s going to happen” for the ailing industry.
WATCH | Atlantic premiers concerned as WestJet ends most flights in region:
The federal response to the pandemic has not ignored the country’s largest companies. All businesses have been able to access the federal wage subsidy. In May, the Liberals rolled out a targeted loan program known as the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF).
WestJet has made use of the wage subsidy; Richard Bartrem, VP of marketing communications at WestJet, called it “terrifically helpful.” WestJet has not sought assistance through the LEEFF program.
“The conditions that were placed [on] it just made it unwieldy in terms of our ability to recover from the pandemic,”…