B.C. health officials 'concerned' about relaxed distancing rules on airlines
VANCOUVER -- Health officials in British Columbia are stressing the need for travellers to stay home while sick as some airlines prepare to end physical distancing measures on flights.
WestJet and Air Canada have announced they will stop ensuring passengers are spaced out while seated beginning on July 1, though everyone who boards will still be screened and required to wear a mask.
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the relaxed rules are worrying given how closely people have to sit together on packed airplanes.
"We are concerned," Henry said Monday. "Certainly it is incredibly important to be wearing a mask, but we also feel physical distancing is an important part of that as well."
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix noted that provinces don't have the authority to dictate how airlines operate. Those rules are set by Transport Canada, which currently recommends physical distancing on flights but does not have a law requiring passengers be spread out.
As airlines move to relax their rules, Dix said Transport Canada should state its position on the decision.
"Do they agree with this? Because it is absolutely within their jurisdiction to deal with," Dix said.
Since the start of the pandemic, people have been urged to stay home while sick, whether they were planning to go to work or head on a cross-country trip. Health officials said that will be especially important if airlines begin selling out flights again.
Henry said over the past week, air passengers have arrived in British Columbia with symptoms and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
"We need people to be honest when they're answering the symptom questions and we need to make sure that we can screen people out from arriving in Canada, and in B.C. and other parts of the country with COVID-19," she said.
WestJet and Air Canada have committed to screening the temperatures of every boarding passenger, and Dix said screening must be done properly and not be rushed as more and more people travel by plane.
"That obligation has to been fundamental. It can't just be one of those things that becomes quicker and quicker throughout the summer as we need to get people moving. It is fundamental to stopping the spread of COVID-19," he said.
The announcement from WestJet and Air Canada caused concern among many passengers as well, some of whom have demanded refunds for flights they booked expecting that they would be able to keep physically distanced from strangers.
The president of Air Passenger Rights told CTV News that customers shouldn't count on getting their money back, even though he feels they should be entitled to a refund under the circumstances.
"I don’t anticipate airlines to voluntarily part from their money, which is why I don’t recommend flying with any Canadian airlines at the moment," Gabor Lukacs said over the weekend.
On the WestJet website, the airline said it stopped holding back middle seats on flights because it was following the International Air Transport Association's guidance for global health and safety.
Lukacs noted the IATA is not a health organization, but an airline association.
With files from CTVNews.ca's Alexandra Mae Jones