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Critics not on board with airlines' decision to relax in-flight physical distancing during COVID-19 – CBC.ca

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The decision by Canada’s two biggest airlines to relax on-board physical distancing policies next month is under fire from those who worry about the health implications of doing so amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air Canada and WestJet announced on Friday they would begin selling tickets for adjacent seats as of July 1, after blocking access to those seats for the past few months to allow passengers to maintain a safe distance from each other.

Relaxing physical distancing on flights contradicts guidance from the federal government but is in line with recommendations from the United Nations aviation agency and the trade organization for the world’s major airlines, which called for an end to in-flight physical distancing rules in May.

“We definitely feel like we’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath us,” said Sarah Antonio, a Toronto resident with a ticket for a WestJet flight to Vancouver on July 8. “I just thought that they would want to take our safety more seriously.”

Antonio said she and her husband are going on a business trip they were supposed to take in March but chose to delay because of the pandemic. She said the main reason they felt comfortable booking the flight now was because WestJet said explicitly during the ticket-booking process that the middle seat would be empty.

Toronto resident Sarah Antonio says she is concerned for her and her husband’s health after hearing that WestJet will now allow customers to book seats adjacent to each other. The couple is flying to Vancouver on July 8 for a business trip. (Sarah Antonio/Submitted)

“We took some comfort in this option,” she said. “Seeing that me and my husband are from the same household, we thought, ‘Oh that’s great. We’re going to have a row to ourselves.'”

Antonio said she was upset when she found out that the middle seat could be filled from a tweet sent by her friend, not from the airline.

“You’re selling us something that you’re not providing,” she said. 

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said the safety of its customers is a top priority and that the company’s protocols are consistent with industry best practices.

“In the instance a guest is not comfortable on board, we suggest that they discuss seating arrangements with our crew, as they will continue to accommodate should there be space,” Bell said. “In the rare instance a guest wants to disembark prior to the cabin door being closed, they would be provided with the opportunity to board the next available flight.”

WATCH: Air Canada and WestJet to stop physical distancing on flights

Air Canada and WestJet are ending their seat distancing policy. Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the key ways to help prevent the spread of the virus in a guide issued to the aviation industry in April. 2:18

Devastating impact of COVID-19 on airline industry

The airline industry has virtually collapsed after travel restrictions and health warnings prompted a general reluctance among many to fly. 

Worldwide, the industry is poised to lose between $152 billion and $187 billion in 2020, according to estimates from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In Canada, airlines lost about 90 per cent of their revenue as planes sat idle throughout April and May.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s trade organization, proposed a range of measures last month aimed at relaunching the global air travel industry after months of declining passenger levels. The IATA said the need for physical distancing on flights was obviated by requirements for face coverings and the use of HEPA air filtration systems that are equivalent to those at hospital operating theatres, among other measures. 

Both Air Canada and WestJet cited the IATA’s health recommendations as justification for their decision to begin selling tickets for every seat, even though Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the “key points” in preventing the spread of the virus as part of a guide issued to the aviation industry in April.

Passengers wearing mandatory masks wait for their flight using physical distancing measures at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on June 23. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

“Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing,” the document states.

While that advice has not changed, a spokesperson for Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the on-board spacing requirement is a recommendation only and therefore not mandatory.

“Other considerations such as aircraft configuration, passenger needs and aviation safety must be taken into account when spacing passengers aboard an aircraft,” communications director Amy Butcher said.

Canadian airlines have taken a number of steps beyond physical distancing on flights to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

They must conduct pre-boarding temperature checks and require masks on board for crew and passengers. They have also implemented enhanced aircraft cleaning and scaled back their in-flight service in late March, cutting out hot drinks, hot meals and fresh food.

Ottawa should make physical distancing mandatory: NDP

NDP MP Niki Ashton said the same physical distancing rules that apply throughout Canada should also apply on airplanes.

“This really speaks to the profit-driven agenda of the airlines,” she said. “The Canadian government should be doing a lot more than encouraging or shrugging its shoulders.”

Air Canada and WestJet are not alone in promoting the IATA recommendations against in-flight physical distancing. 

Budget carrier Flair Airlines never adopted a no-middle-seat policy, CEO Jim Scott said in an interview.

“It was really easy to have space between passengers because, until two weeks ago, we didn’t have any passengers,” he said.

Scott said as more tickets have been booked in the past 14 days, the airline faced a choice: block off middle seats and raise all fares by up to 40 per cent or find another way. Flair chose to allow passengers who book flights in a specific section of a plane to pay a $49 fee to ensure the seat beside them remains vacant.

Other Canadian airlines, including Air Transat and Porter Airlines, have suspended flights until mid to late July. Air Transat said when it returns to flying on July 23, middle seats won’t be blocked off.

“We will, however, to the best of our ability, apply distanced seating when possible … [for example] when the load factor allows it,” Air Transat spokesperson Christophe Hennebelle said.

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Stock futures flat following sell-off on Wall Street – CNBC

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U.S. stock futures were flat in overnight trading, following weakness in equities in the previous session. 

Dow futures rose 40 points, indicating a gain of 0.16%. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq-100 also were set to open higher, with gains of 0.08% and 0.12%, respectively. 

On Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 397 points, or 1.5%, breaking a two-day winning streak. The Dow was brought down by a 4.8% drop in Boeing. The S&P 500 also registered a loss, slipping 1.1%, to break a five day win streak. 

The Nasdaq Composite lost 0.86%, after notching its 27th intra-day all-time high of the year earlier in the session on Tuesday. The technology-heavy index was positive for most of the day thanks to strength in Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Netflix, which all hit record highs. 

“While significant gains in technology stocks kept the market afloat yesterday, even these market darlings capitulated during the afternoon hours today,” Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group, told CNBC. 

Stocks that hinge on the reopening of the economy dragged down the broader market as investors digested a resurgence in coronavirus cases in the U.S. More than 2.93 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the U.S. along with at least 130,306 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Concerns about rising U.S. Covid case counts continued to shake confidence in reopening efforts about the country,” Paulsen added. 

Sentiment was boosted when the U.S. government awarded drugmaker Novavax a $1.6 billion contract to develop a coronavirus vaccine, the biggest amount yet granted under the White House’s “Operation Warp Speed.”

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North American markets mixed, Nasdaq on track for new record – BNN

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4:15 p.m. ET: North American markets fall, close near session lows

North American equity markets closed lower in Tuesday’s trade, erasing much of the gains from Monday’s rally. The S&P/TSX Composite Index fell 0.47 per cent, the S&P 500 dropped 1.08 per cent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 1.51 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite Index shed 0.86 per cent of its value.

The selloff accelerated into the closing hour of trading, after the major North American markets were largely mixed through midday. The declines marked the first negative showing for the S&P 500 in six trading sessions, with the broad-market benchmark snapping its longest winning streak of the year.

U.S. markets were led lower by stocks seen as sensitive to the prospects for a global economic reopening, with airlines, hotel operators and cruise line stocks posting losses. Boeing Co. on its own erased 62 points from the Dow with its 4.77 per cent drop.

In Toronto, nine of the 11 TSX subgroups finished in negative territory, with consumer discretionary, financials and health care posting the largest declines. Only materials and information technology closed the day higher.

160 of the composite’s 221 individual constituents closed out the session lower, with Enerplus Corp. and Seven Generations Energy Ltd. notching the largest percentage declines.

Oil prices retreated modestly, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate falling 0.74 per cent to US$40.33 per barrel and Alberta’s Western Canadian Select down 0.39 per cent to US$33.08 per barrel.

The Canadian dollar slipped against its American counterpart, falling four-tenths of a cent to 73.48 cents U.S.

12:00 p.m. ET: North American markets mixed, Nasdaq on track for new record

North American equity markets were mixed entering the Tuesday afternoon session, with the S&P/TSX Composite up about 0.2 per cent, the S&P 500 trading essentially flat, the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 0.7 per cent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index up half a per cent.

Gains made in technology stocks had the Nasdaq on track to post a new record closing high, as heavyweights including Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. pushed the index higher.

The underperformance of the Dow was in no small part due to a 3.6 per cent decline in shares of Boeing, which took 46 points off the average on its own. Shares in the U.S. planemaker fell amid broad-based weakness in airline and hotel stocks amid concerns the surging U.S. COVID-19 case count could lead to another clampdown on gradual economic reopenings.

In Toronto, six of the 11 TSX subgroups were in negative territory, led lower by financials, health care and consumer discretionary stocks. Information technology, materials and industrials were the top performers.

Just over half of the composite’s 221 individual constituents were lower, with Enerplus Corp and Air Canada posting the largest percentage declines.

Oil prices pushed modestly higher, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate rising half a per cent to US$40.83 per barrel. Alberta’s Western Canadian Select gained 0.63 per cent to US$33.42 per barrel.

The Canadian dollar continued to lose ground against its American counterpart, shedding a quarter of a cent to trade at 73.61 cents U.S.

9:40 a.m. ET: North American markets slip, give back some of Monday’s rally

North American equity markets slid in early trading Tuesday, paring some of the gains made in Monday’s rally.

The S&P/TSX Composite Index fell about half a per cent, the S&P 500 declined 0.6 per cent, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 0.75 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite Index slipped a modest 0.3 per cent.

The S&P 500 is on track to snap its five-day string of gains, the longest winning streak for the index since December as investors weigh the impact of global economic reopenings against a surge of new COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Traditional safe-haven assets rose following Monday’s declines, with a measure of the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasuries both posting modest gains.

In Toronto, all eleven TSX subgroups opened the day in negative territory, led lower by energy, financials and healthcare stocks.

Crude oil gave up ground, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate down 0.7 per cent to US$40.36 per barrel. Alberta’s Western Canadian Select posted a similar decline, falling 0.66 per cent to US$32.99 per barrel.

The Canadian dollar fell two-tenths of a cent against its American counterpart to 73.64 cents U.S.

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Canadian airlines accused of ignoring COVID-19 precautions, denying refunds – CTV News

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TORONTO —
When Bobbi Jo Green booked a flight back in May for her, her husband, and her children to see two ailing family members, she was counting on the airline’s physical distancing rules to still be in place.

But just three weeks before Green and her family were set to fly from Edmonton to Sydney, N.S., on July 17, WestJet announced it was ending its policy of leaving the middle seats on its flights empty.

“I was devastated,” Green said, noting her family spends every summer in Nova Scotia with her 93-year-old grandmother who is suffering from severe dementia and another family member with an incurable form of cancer.

“We all knew it could very well be the last summer we would spend with them.”

When Green called WestJet to see if any accommodations could be made, she told the company she has a heart condition that puts her in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

Despite her pleas, Green said the airline told her it was unable to make any special accommodations, nor would it allow her to change the date of the flight to before July 1, when the rules were relaxed, without paying a fee.

And Green’s not alone: as provinces begin to relax domestic travel restrictions, the cessation of physical distancing rules by two of Canada’s biggest airlines — WestJet and Air Canada — is causing frustration and grief among some passengers.

Gabor Lukacs, head of the advocacy group Air Passenger Rights Canada, said he has fielded countless complaints from passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which are related to the same issues: airlines refusing to offer refunds or accommodations amid the abolition of physical distancing rules.

While he acknowledges the effort to fill seats is due to airlines attempting to recoup billions in lost revenue, Lukacs argues the companies risk deterring customers from flying at all.

“The question is: do we allow economic considerations to override public health? We don’t allow supermarkets to sell spoiled meat because it’s cheaper. Are we going to allow doctors to skip disinfecting their tools to save the cost?”

There’s some evidence he’s right: a new poll conducted by Leger and the Association of Canadian Studies found 72 per cent of respondents say they are not comfortable flying now that Air Canada and WestJet have culled their seat distancing policies.

Only 22 per cent said they would be OK with flying under the newly relaxed rules.

In response to criticisms, WestJet forwarded The Canadian Press a statement from a July 3 blog post regarding changes to its seat distancing policy.

“The blocked middle seat was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic before the myriad of safety measures were put in place and mandated on board,” the statement reads.

“Seat distancing was never intended to be in place permanently or throughout the pandemic.”

The post notes a number of measures WestJet has taken to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on its flights, including mandatory masking, pre-boarding questionnaires for all passengers, temperature screening, thorough cleaning of aircraft between flights, and the restriction of in-flight dining services.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the company has also denied it’s putting passengers and staff at risk by filling flights up, pointing to other safety measures as mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Yet some passengers report first-hand experiences in which masking protocols were not followed.

Maureen Isabel Green, 31, flew from Vancouver to Fredericton three weeks ago with Air Canada to visit her family, and said she was shocked by the lax use of masks by both airport employees and the passengers on her two connecting flights.

“I just think of all the people who are getting on a flight and risking their life, or risking the life of the people they’re going to visit, because some people don’t want to wear a mask for a few hours,” she said.

Green, who is a health-care worker, said there were numerous instances on her flight from Vancouver to Montreal where a group of young, male passengers took off their masks when flight attendants were not present.

While at the Montreal airport, Green said a man was able to board a flight without wearing a mask, simply by telling attendants he had a medical condition that prevented him from doing so.

Air travel has been at the centre of several headline-grabbing incidents throughout the pandemic — particularly since travel restrictions have been eased in some regions.

On July 2, health authorities in B.C. warned the passengers of four separate flights that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Just a day before — on the exact day the airlines ended their social distancing policies — the Nova Scotia Health Authority warned passengers of a Toronto-to-Halifax WestJet flight from the previous week that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

And on Sunday, a Halifax man reportedly walked off of a St. John’s-bound flight after learning he was the only passenger travelling within the so-called “Atlantic bubble,” sparking discussion about the effectiveness of airlines’ COVID-prevention policies.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 7, 2020.

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