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After Air Canada lifeline, small carriers seek aid as virus looms ahead of summer travel

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By Allison Lampert and Steve Scherer

MONTREAL (Reuters) –Canada is facing industry calls to extend financial aid to smaller airlines, after offering a C$5.9 billion ($4.71 billion)life-line to Air Canada, as new COVID-19 variants loom ahead of the vital summer travel season.

The timing of Monday’s deal, which saw the Canadian government take a 6% equity stake in Air Canada, was partly designed to secure “access to air travel when it returns,” as the country’s vaccine rollout ramps up this summer, a source familiar with the discussions said.

But with the spread of new variants threatening to overtake the pace of vaccination, early hopes for a relaxation of Canada‘s strict travel requirements ahead of summer are fading.

Fears of a delayed recovery, along with the Air Canada deal, has upset the “level playing field” for air service, with smaller carriers asking for financial support.

“We want everyone to have access to the same programs,” said John McKenna, chief executive of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), which represents smaller carriers.

On Wednesday, Air Canada joined rival WestJet Airlines in extending a three-month suspension of sun-destination flights to the Caribbean and Mexico originally slated to end on April 30, reflecting the government’s current warnings against international travel. [L1N2M71SG]

The planned April reopening of a bubble in Atlantic Canada, which would allow travel among the region’s four provinces without the need to self-isolate, was postponed this week until at least May 3 over COVID-19 concerns.

WestJet said its previously-planned schedule for Atlantic Canada remains unchanged.

Canada‘s vaccine roll out has been slow, but it is ramping up now. By the end of June, some 44 million doses are expected, and everyone who wants to be fully inoculated will be by the end of September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised.

Trudeau said in a radio interview this week that he supports Canadian provinces which choose to close their borders to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Canada‘s Liberal government, which will deliver its first budget in two years next week, has said talks with carriers like Onex Corp-owned WestJet are ongoing.

“We hope that the other agreements come as soon as possible,” the source familiar with the talks said, adding that “different airlines have different needs”.

WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell said the airline is optimistic that a successful vaccine roll-out will support summer travel and expects “government policy will transition” with mounting jabs.

Canada, with some of the world’s toughest travel rules, has a mandate that its citizens and residents arriving from abroad self-isolate for 14 days.

Health Canada advised Canadians in a statement to avoid traveling outside the country “for the foreseeable future.”

Calgary-based WestJet has asked the government to end an order requiring international arrivals to quarantine for up to three days in a hotel in favor of COVID-19 testing.

The government must decide whether to renew the controversial hotel order, which expires on April 21.

McKenna also urged the government to relax restrictions on travel with neighboring United States.

“The government can come up with all the financial help they want,” ATAC’s McKenna said. “But until those things are relaxed we can’t do anything.”

($1 = 1.2515 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Steve Scherer in Ottawa. Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Diane Craft)

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China to release results of once-in-a-decade census on May 11

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China is expected to release the results of its once-in-a-decade census conducted late last year on May 11, according to a notice from the State Council Information Office.

Officials from the census and statistics bureaus will brief the media on the census results on May 11, the State Council Information Office said in a notice on Sunday.

The National Bureau of Statistics said previously that the results would be released at a media briefing scheduled for early April. It later said the announcement had been delayed, as more preparatory work needed to be done.

 

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

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Afghan school blast toll rises to 58, families bury victims

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The death toll from an explosion outside a school in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul has risen to 58, Afghan officials said on Sunday, with doctors struggling to provide medical care to at least 150 injured.

The bombing on Saturday evening shook the city’s Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi. The community, a religious minority in Afghanistan, has been targeted in the past by Islamic State militants, a Sunni militant group.

An eyewitness told Reuters all but seven or eight of the victims were schoolgirls going home after finishing studies.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday blamed the attack on Taliban insurgents but a spokesman for the Taliban denied involvement, saying the group condemns any attacks on Afghan civilians.

Families of the victims blamed the Afghan government and Western powers for failing to put an end to violence and the ongoing war.

Bodies were still being collected from morgues as the first burials were conducted in the west of the city. Some families were still searching for missing relatives on Sunday, gathering outside hospitals to read names posted on the walls, and checking morgues.

“The entire night we carried bodies of young girls and boys to a graveyard and prayed for everyone wounded in the attack,” said Mohammed Reza Ali, who has been helping families of the victims at a private hospital.

“Why not just kill all of us to put and end to this war?” he said.

The violence comes a week after remaining U.S. and NATO troops began exiting Afghanistan, with a mission to complete the drawdown by September 11, which will mark the end of America’s longest war.

But the foreign troop withdrawal has led a surge in fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents with both sides trying to retain control over strategic centres.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Chinese rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean, draws criticism from NASA

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By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) -Remnants of China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, with most of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit but drawing U.S. criticism over lack of transparency.

The coordinates given by Chinese state media, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, put the point of impact in the ocean, west of the Maldives archipelago.

Debris from the Long March 5B has had some people looking warily skyward since it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere.

State media reported parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.

The U.S. Space command confirmed the re-entry of the rocket over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris impacted land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of debris, both of which are unknown at this time, will not be released by U.S. Space Command,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut who was picked for the role in March, said in a statement after the re-entry.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

ANXIETY OVER POTENTIAL DEBRIS ZONE

With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of populated area on land being hit had been low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower, according to experts.

But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety.

“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” said McDowell.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “Western hype” concerns the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage.

“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on May 7.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” Wang said at the time.

The rocket, which put into orbit an unmanned Tianhe module containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station by 2022.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han in Beijing and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Himani Sarkar & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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