Air Canada’s voluntary test trials in partnership with Greater Toronto Airports Authority illustrate efforts being taken to find ‘responsible way to co-exist with Covid-19’ and avoid crippling quarantines

10 September, 2020

Canada’s travel restrictions have been firmly in place since March, and with no clear cut guidance as to when a change will occur, Air Canada is opting to conduct Covid-19 tests at its largest hub in Toronto to persuade the government to lift current quarantine requirements in place.

The country’s travel restrictions include a blanket prohibition on all foreign travellers, the closure of the Canada-US border, blanket quarantine rules, and interprovincial travel barriers. All travellers entering Canada, including Canadians, must quarantine for 14 days.

The country’s largest operators and other travel stakeholders have been lobbying the government to find a "responsible way to co-exist with Covid-19 until there is a vaccine". This includes “prudently and thoughtfully opening aviation and lifting restrictions to safely resume travel throughout all Provinces of Canada, as well as from select[ed] countries”.

Air Canada has declared that Canada’s federal and interprovincial restrictions, which have been amongst the most severe in the world, resulted in the airline carrying less than 4% of the customers during 2Q2020 than it transported in 2Q2019. Now Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority are starting a voluntary, month-long testing programme for international arrivals at Terminal 1 at Toronto’s Lester B Pearson International Airport.

Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority are teaming up with McMaster Health Labs (MHL) to conduct the testing, and the study is aimed at providing data toe “help determine if an airport-based Covid-19 surveillance program is feasible, whether self-collection of Covid-19 testing is effective, and to explore options regarding the 14-day quarantine for international travel”, says the Covid-19 research initiatives and testing solutions non-profit organisation.

Canada’s border restrictions will remain in place until late Sep-2020, and there’s been little guidance from the government about how Canada will ultimately adjust or change its travel requirements. Air Canada stated it is providing “resources and support” for the study, and believes the findings could be useful to the Canadian government in “its decision-making to control the spread of Covid-19 and in exploring policy options”.

Air Canada believes that issues arising from Covid-19 related to travel can be safely managed using a science-based approach. The voluntary study performed by MHL, whose team has years of infectious disease academic research experience, should improve the understanding of the prevalence of Covid-19 among travellers so that safety measures implemented are proportionate to the actual risk.

The Canadian flag carrier has been at the forefront of the airline industry’s response to Covid-19, including being among the first carriers globally to require customer face coverings onboard and the first airline in the Americas to take customers' temperatures prior to boarding. In May it introduced Air Canada CleanCare+ to apply biosafety measures at each stage of the journey.

The study will seek to examine the number and percentage of arriving international travellers who test positive for Covid-19 during the federal government's quarantine period. As such the findings of the study may be useful to the Government of Canada in future decision-making to control the spread of COVID-19 and in exploring policy options. Having scientific data to support decision-making about the spread of the coronavirus would certainly be an important tool to keep travellers safe while working to wake trade and industry from its slumber.

Beginning 03-Sep-2020, international travellers arriving at Toronto Pearson’s Terminal 1 have been invited to take part in the study on a strictly voluntary basis after providing informed consent. Consenting participants are providing a sample to MHL researchers before leaving the airport and two additional self-collected samples seven and fourteen days after arrival are being collected, coinciding with the federal government's quarantine period.