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Airlines need aid or ability to fly to escape ‘catastrophic territory,’ Air Canada CEO warns
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Airlines need aid or ability to fly to escape ‘catastrophic territory,’ Air Canada CEO warns

The chief executive of Canada’s largest air carrier says it’s time for the federal government to either relax pandemic-related restrictions on travel or provide more aid to a beleaguered airline industry that has been left “basically … in shutdown mode” due to measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“This is catastrophic territory,” Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu told the Financial Post in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “This is hundreds of times worse than 9/11, SARS, or the global financial crisis — quite frankly combined…. We never got to the level when we were only operating at five per cent in any of those circumstances, you know, other than the three days of shut-down post 9/11.”

Rovinescu said “broad brush” blanket travel advisories were appropriate in March and April when little was understood about the virus and how COVID-19 was transmitted, but that jurisdictions such as the European Union have since moved to create “safe corridors” or “travel bubbles” based on science and virus tracking, with “bio-safety” measures put in place in airports and on flights.

“In my opinion, that’s the way to go,” he said, adding that there has been “dialogue” with government officials, but no significant movement to ease global or domestic restrictions for Canadian airlines. Those include mandatory 14-day quarantines that Rovinescu described as putting “the cold shower” on business travel. He said the blanket approach has persisted even as Canada’s virus reproduction rate has been contained below a key threshold that was understood to be the key to easing some restrictions.

“Right now, we’re closed to business by government decree,” he said.

Meanwhile, while Canadian air carriers such as Air Canada have had to raise funds to offset their high fixed costs and cash burn, their global counterparts including American Airlines, United, Southwest, Singapore Airlines, Air France and KLM in the Netherlands are receiving billions of dollars and euros in government aid and rescue packages, he said.

That aid “is something of a recognition that airlines are a key driver of economic activity,” Rovinescu said, adding that while Air Canada generated nearly $20 billion in revenue last year, it is estimated to have enabled spin-off revenue at other companies — from food service to aircraft maintenance — of around $50 billion…

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