National Post (Latest Edition)

Airlines are not our COVID problem

- SAMUEL ELFASSY Financial Post Samuel Elfassy is vice-president for safety at Air Canada.

Just as truth is the first casualty of war, it seems that in many quarters reason is the first casualty of a pandemic. This can lead to victim blaming, half-truths and false accusation­s, such as suggesting public safety is being compromise­d as the airline industry responsibl­y navigates the worst global health crisis in 100 years to provide the essential service of air transport.

Begin with some perspectiv­e. The government of Canada says that fewer than two per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada are a result of travel. Marc Garneau, in his recent capacity as federal transport minister, and Chief Public health Officer Theresa Tam have said they know of no cases of onboard transmissi­on of COVID-19 on aircraft. The American Medical Associatio­n, the u.s. Centers for disease Control and Prevention and the World health Organizati­on also agree the risk is low.

Clearly, airlines are doing something right. In Air Canada’s case, we have led both industry and government in implementi­ng highly effective safety measures to protect customers, employees and the communitie­s we serve.

Last January, weeks ahead of the federal government’s decision to halt flights to China, Air Canada suspended its service to that country. Last April, we mandated masks be worn by all customers onboard our aircraft, a month before Canada’s chief medical officer recommende­d wearing masks in public places. In May, Air Canada instituted pre-boarding temperatur­e checks for all customers at a time when government officials said such checks had no value (though Transport Canada mandated them the following month).

These and other measures, such as our comprehens­ive “Air Canada Cleancare+” biosafety program, are proof of our airline’s commitment to safety. Given that commitment and our continuous improvemen­t culture, however, we are determined to bring even the less-than-two-per cent importatio­n rate still lower through the use of scienceand evidence-based strategies, notably testing, to ensure airlines are not a source of transmissi­on.

This fall, we spearheade­d a study to test arriving internatio­nal passengers at Canada’s biggest airport, Toronto-pearson. It was the largest-ever study of its kind anywhere in the world and it was conducted by the independen­t research body, Mcmaster healthlabs. The

Greater Toronto Airports Authority also took part and, once the study was underway, the federal government recognized its value and joined in at the eleventh hour.

The study was conducted between Sept. 3 and Nov. 14, 2020. It is anticipate­d the final report will examine results from more than 40,000 tests but preliminar­y results, based on 20,000 tests, found 99 per cent of study participan­ts tested negative for COVID-19. Of the one per cent that did test positive, 0.7 per cent were detected on arrival while the other 0.3 per cent were detected by a test seven days later.

These results suggest several things. First, 99 per cent of people arriving in Canada are subject to a blanket 14day quarantine to no purpose. Second, proper testing, combined with shortened quarantine, is highly accurate in detecting COVID-19 cases. And, third, since testing can achieve 100 per cent compliance, it is more effective than full quarantine. As the Public health Agency of Canada has reported, large numbers of people violate quarantine, while Ontario cellphone data show those quarantine­d after arriving from the united States spent on average only 77 per cent of the two weeks at home.

The government’s recently-introduced pre-departure testing requiremen­t for people flying to Canada is the type of additional layer of safety we have long advocated because it promises to best capture infected travellers, at a time close to departure. Though it is inconvenie­nt for travellers now, as technology improves to allow mass, accurate and rapid testing — ideally in an airport environmen­t — the already low risk of travellers carrying COVID-19 home will fall even further and allow a safe reduction in quarantine times.

At a time when public health resources are strained, a proper testing regime will free up resources now spent monitoring the unnecessar­y quarantine of healthy people. health workers no longer needed to monitor quarantine could do contact tracing, focus on high-risk cases and enact other programs to better protect our communitie­s. This is why Air Canada has been appealing to the federal government since April to implement testing, which it finally did last week.

The charge has been made that Air Canada puts profits ahead of people’s health but, as our national leadership in combating COVID-19 shows, nothing could be further from the truth. For any airline to succeed and thrive long term, it must above all be safe and demonstrat­e a genuine commitment to safety, something Air Canada has proudly done for more than 80 years.


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