COVID-19: Airlines, union say they need more guidance from government on mandatory screening

Mar 19, 2020

Ottawa (Canada) March 19: As of midnight Wednesday, all airlines are now required to screen passengers before they board flights bound for Canada. But it is still unclear what those measures will be or how they will be enforced by airline operators.
Contacted by CBC News, airlines in Canada, their employee unions and federal government agencies were still unclear Wednesday about how the measures imposed by the federal government would be implemented.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that the federal government was requiring all airlines to screen passengers and stop them from flying if they presented with symptoms of COVID-19.
"Air operators will be required to complete a basic health assessment of every air traveller based on guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada," Trudeau said from outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, where he is in self-isolation.
"This means that anyone who has symptoms will not be able to come to Canada. I know this news will spark concern among Canadians travelling abroad."
It was unclear how the mandate would be enforced by airlines around the world. Would it be the ticket agent, the flight attendant or a health-care expert carrying out the screening?
"We need guidance material from government as soon as possible," John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said Wednesday afternoon.
McKenna said that his association, which represents several domestic airlines and suppliers, has been pushing for guidelines and procedures to implement the directive.
"We still haven't received them," he said.
'Nothing has significantly changed'
Lou Arab, a spokesperson for CUPE Local 4070, which represents about 4,000 cabin crew members at WestJet, Encore and Swoop, told the CBC that his members haven't been given any specifics when it comes to testing passengers.
"There still is no particular direction from the airlines on that front," he said. "Nothing has significantly changed on the ground in airports at the gate."
Transport Canada included this notice on its website:
"Under the Aeronautics Act, the Minister of Transport will require air operators to deny boarding of a traveller who is symptomatic (regardless of citizenship status) and keep them from going on an international flight to Canada (including a trans-border flight)."
The notice goes on to say that airlines must do a basic health assessment of all travellers before they board the flight. If a passenger shows symptoms of COVID-19, they should not be allowed to board for a period of 14 days. However, if they can provide medical confirmation that they don't carry the virus, they may be able to return before that time period.
The notice stated that all airlines should have screening measures "fully in place by Thursday, March 19, at 00:01 a.m. EDT."
But as the deadline looms, the airlines and their employee unions have not been able to offer any specifics on how the mandate will be enforced at airports around the world.
Air Canada, union respond
"These are questions you should direct to the government as it is their policy," Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Air Canada told the CBC via email Tuesday.
"For our part, we are still evaluating these requirements."
As of Wednesday, Air Canada had no further information to share when CBC followed up.
In a press release Tuesday, Air Canada's union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said the union welcomes the announcement of additional pre-flight screening but said flight attendants shouldn't be responsible for this screening and that airports or airlines should have specially trained personnel assigned.
"We have conveyed our position that it should not be flight attendants performing screening, especially given how poorly supplied they are presently with personal protective equipment," a union spokesperson told the CBC in an email.
For its part, WestJet said in an email it was "adhering to the recently imposed entrance requirements for guests travelling on flights destined to Canada."
"Our teams are following the guidelines provided by the government," the airline said. "Any additional details can be obtained directly from them."
More oversight, resources needed
Arab said that if government is relying on airlines to prevent the spread of the virus on flights, there needs to be more oversight of airlines and more staff on board to make it happen.
"You're dealing with a crazy situation that is changing rapidly," he said.
"Government and staff are doing the best they can. That's the charitable interpretation of the situation."
The CBC contacted three federal departments this week seeking specifics on the prime minister's announcement.
Transport Canada had not responded to a request for further information Wednesday.
"We are consulting internally and with other government departments to ensure we provide the most comprehensive response. An extension to your deadline may be needed, " a Health Canada spokesperson said Tuesday.
At the time of publication, Health Canada had not provided any new information about how the mandate would be implemented.
The Canada Border Services Agency also did not respond to a request for information.
Screening protocol for ill passengers already exists
Air Canada does have a general protocol in place for screening passengers who may be sick.
"Each case is different. However, we have a general protocol that when a passenger who appears unwell attempts to check-in or board an aircraft, our agents will make inquiries of the customer regarding their health," said a corporate notice obtained by CBC that went out to Air Canada employees recently.
"This can include consultation with our own medical desk or a third-party health provider. In cases where we have grounds to believe someone may be unfit to travel, we can also deny the customer boarding for their own well-being, and that of other customers and employees."
Screening by airline operators is not unprecedented. The United Arab Emirates-based airline Emirates announced on March 12 that it would thermal-screen passengers prior to boarding flights from Dubai to the U.S.
"If a passenger is found to have a higher than normal temperature, they will undergo further testing," Emirates said in a recent notice on its website.
It was also unclear Wednesday if the Canadian government had reached out to the remaining foreign airlines that fly into Canada and informed them of the new screening mandate.
Canada is currently funnelling all flights from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America through Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Those from the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico can land at their scheduled destinations.
Source: CBC News

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