Evidence of meeting #29 for Health in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was industry.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Kevin Brosseau  Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport
Lawrence Hanson  Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy, Department of Transport
Wendy Nixon  Director General, Aviation Security, Department of Transport
Nicholas Robinson  Director General, Civil Aviation, Department of Transport
Ferio Pugliese  Senior Vice-President, Air Canada Express and Government Relations, Air Canada
Jim Chung  Chief Medical Officer, Air Canada
Howard Liebman  Senior Director, Government and Community Affairs, Air Transat
Jared Mikoch-Gerke  Manager, Aviation Security, WestJet Airlines Ltd.
Dave Bourdages  Vice-President, In-Flight Service and Customer Experience, Air Transat

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Thank you, Mr. Kelloway.

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Mr. Desilets, you have the floor for two and a half minutes.

1 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Brosseau, in your opinion, what prompted the mayor of Montreal to ask her staff to hand out information and awareness brochures? She even asked them to explain emergency health measures to travellers arriving at the Montreal airport.

Is this overstepping, improvisation or a communication issue with your department?

1 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

Thank you very much for your question.

I am sorry, but I do not know why the mayor made those comments. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to answer that question.

1 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

All right. The fact remains that she took the lead. In Quebec, we all wondered what right she had to do that, but it was a perfectly legitimate position that has proven to be appropriate over time.

I would like to ask you another question. Do you think that taking passengers' temperature is an appropriate measure?

1 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

I found—

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Mr. Brosseau, if you're going to respond in French, could you please switch to the French channel.

1 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

You can answer in French or in English, no problem.

1 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

I am Franco-Albertan, so I will try to answer in French, and if I need to switch to English, I will.

I will say that taking temperatures is just one of several steps that help airlines make sure that sick people do not set foot on a plane or in another airport.

1 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

That answers my question. In that case, why do Air Canada and WestJet have a protocol in place to take passengers' temperature? Is that the result of discussions you have had with them, or did they do their research on their own?

1 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

We frequently talk to big companies like WestJet and Air Canada about the steps they are taking. We can certainly ask them to put in place certain protocols. So I would say that it is a result of our discussions, and also because they are looking at what other airlines around the world are doing. So they are taking the necessary steps to ensure that Canadians trust them.

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Thank you, Mr. Desilets.

1 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Thank you, Mr. Brosseau.

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Mr. Davies, please go ahead for two and a half minutes.

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you.

Mr. Brosseau, I want to pick up my questioning by noting that you're allowing air carriers to fill airplanes to full capacity. Dr. Theresa Tam has stated categorically that masks are no substitute for physical distancing. Also, she has never said that physical distancing is required except if it's more profitable not to physically distance. Finally, we're not talking about flights to remote areas. The example I gave you was a flight from Calgary to Vancouver.

Once again, why was Transport Canada allowing air carriers to fill airplanes to capacity when all of our public health guidance has told us that we should not be doing that?

June 22nd, 2020 / 1:05 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

The public health advice we received is that physical distancing should be maintained whenever possible. We put in place a system of several measures—I'll call it a layered approach—where there's no one single point of failure. That's why we have the questions, the physical observations, the face masks, the configuration of the aircraft in some cases, and the personal protective equipment worn by flight attendants for their interactions with passengers. There are myriad different points to minimize the risk of transmission. It's not one individual measure but a number of them.

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

I understand that, Mr. Brosseau, but would you say that it's not possible, then, to physically distance on an aircraft such as the one that travelled from Calgary to Vancouver?

1:05 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Department of Transport

Kevin Brosseau

I'm not sure what type of aircraft that was, but I can certainly turn to my colleague Mr. Robinson, who might have a better answer for you.

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Well, let me suggest the answer.

The CEO of that airline said he didn't have the middle seats empty because the passengers on the other side didn't pay a premium. Clearly it was possible for them to physically distance, but the CEO of the air carrier simply chose not to allow this because it was less profitable to do so. I'm curious about that.

I'll pivot to a different question—

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

Thank you, Mr. Davies.

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you.

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

I'd like to thank all the witnesses for being here and sharing with us all of their expertise and for giving us their time. It's much appreciated and very helpful.

With that, we will suspend the meeting as we bring in the second panel.

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ron McKinnon

We will resume the meeting.

Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 29 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. We are working pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020. We are resuming our briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the new witnesses.

Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, except that, during questioning, the questioners typically indicate to whom they are addressing their questions. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I remind everyone that all comments should be addressed to the chair. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of floor, English or French. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need also to switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you're speaking. You want to allow for a short pause when you're switching languages. When you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.

I'd like to welcome our second panel of witnesses.

From Air Canada we have Mr. Ferio Pugliese, senior vice-president, Air Canada Express and government relations; and Dr. Jim Chung, chief medical officer.

From Air Transat we have Mr. Howard Liebman, senior director, government and community affairs; and Captain Dave Bourdages, vice-president, in-flight service and customer experience.

From WestJet we have Jared Mikoch-Gerke, manager, aviation and security.

We will start with statements. Each group will have 10 minutes to make a statement.

Air Canada, we will start with you. You have 10 minutes. Go ahead, please.

1:25 p.m.

Ferio Pugliese Senior Vice-President, Air Canada Express and Government Relations, Air Canada

Good afternoon, Chair and members of the standing committee. Thanks for allowing us the opportunity to be here this afternoon with you. Given this is the Standing Committee on Health, I trust everyone is well and safe.

My name is Ferio Pugliese. I am the senior vice-president of government relations and Air Canada Express at Air Canada. I am pleased to join you here to discuss the Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am joined by my colleague, Dr. Jim Chung, who is Air Canada’s chief medical officer. He and I will try to divide our time with opening remarks and then be available to answer your questions.

As we all know, the impact of the pandemic has been unprecedented. Not only has this novel disease negatively affected the health of individuals, cities and countries, it has also ground economies to a halt, undermined trade relationships, closed borders and reduced passenger travel between countries in a way that many of us never thought possible. At this stage, Air Canada has had a front row seat in all of this.

As Air Canada followed the disease in China in late 2019 and early 2020, we began to see travel demand between the two countries drop significantly. This forced us to cut back service to China at a significant cost. In fact, we were one of the first North American airlines to do so. Continued monitoring of the World Health Organization’s daily reports and those of our health partner BlueDot made us realize that the situation was more dire than many cared to admit.

As cases of COVID-19 began to appear outside China and with little information about the nature of the disease, Air Canada’s executive team made the decision to cease all operations to China, following a travel advisory issued by the Government of Canada. This took place on January 29, 2020, one full day before the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, and well before the WHO declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. It's important to note that Chinese carriers continued to operate to Canada during this period.

Over the course of February, we saw air travel demand drop by even larger numbers, with cancellations of existing bookings increasing in lockstep. Our sector was unique in that we were witnessing and feeling the economic impact ahead of almost any other industry or sector, except for maybe hotels and tour operators, and well before the pandemic declaration.

In addition to this fear-induced drop in demand, governments around the world began to impose travel restrictions and border closures that would physically limit travel options. By mid-March, easily one of the busiest air travel periods of the year, our operations were a fraction of what they had been the year prior, and worse, domestic and international advance bookings were almost zero.

Sadly, after 10 years of growth and recognition as one of the best airlines in the world, Air Canada was reduced to 5% of operations year over year, essentially a 95% reduction. As a result, we made the difficult but necessary choice to lay off over 20,000 employees, more than 50% of our workforce, and reduce our global network from 220 destinations to 46.

Given that Canadian border restrictions and quarantine policies remain in place, there is little hope of a near-term recovery, although we are taking steps to rebuild our network and continue to lobby to lift these restrictions.

Even as our day-to-day operations were being scaled back, we took steps to assist in the national effort to combat the crisis by doing what we do best: fly people and cargo. In March and April, in collaboration with Global Affairs Canada, we repatriated more than 300,000 Canadians through our regularly scheduled flights and specially arranged repatriation flights. In total, we operated 21 dedicated repatriation flights. Our crews deserve our thanks.

To quote Minister Champagne, “Air Canada played a vital role in bringing thousands of our fellow Canadians home." I want to thank them on the public record for their tireless effort, compassion, dedication and professionalism during these demanding missions.

In addition to repatriating Canadians, Air Canada took steps to scale our cargo operations and assist in strengthening the supply chain to secure equipment for the health network.

Since the end of March, we have operated more than 1,500 of these cargo-only flights and transported hundreds of tonnes of medical equipment. It is important to note that cargo also plays a critical role in the global economy and our own national economy.

At this stage, Air Canada is in recovery mode. We're learning how to deal with this disease. We are not only taking steps to address COVID-19 concerns, but also working with domestic and international partners to ensure that air travel continues to be a safe alternative for travel. In conjunction with world health organizations and authorities, many countries like France, Germany, Portugal, Japan and Australia are now implementing plans to reopen borders to bring back trade and tourism to their economies.

Air Canada alone contributes $50 billion to the Canadian economy through these activities, to say nothing of the entities in the supply chain. Canada, we believe, now needs to work with stakeholders to urgently take steps to reopen its borders, ease travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, both domestically and internationally, in a very measured and prudent fashion. Otherwise, our sector and the Canadian economy would suffer far longer than they need to.

I will stop my remarks there and turn the floor over to my colleague, Dr. Jim Chung.

1:30 p.m.

Dr. Jim Chung Chief Medical Officer, Air Canada

Thank you.

Good afternoon, everyone.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak on perhaps the most defining health issue of our lifetime.

As Air Canada's chief medical officer, I oversee all aspects of Air Canada's health policies and from day one have been directly involved with both Air Canada and the International Air Transport Association medical advisory group's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As stated earlier, Air Canada had an early view into the pandemic and was very concerned with the trajectory of the disease in early January 2020.

This insight was partly due to our partnership with BlueDot. In April 2019, we entered into a partnership with a small Toronto-based artificial intelligence infectious disease analytics and surveillance company, because we recognized the importance of early disease surveillance and the impact it has on the aviation industry. BlueDot assists Air Canada in predicting when and what stations will be affected in any given outbreak, allowing us to plan accordingly with early warning.

With the benefit of this partnership, and in the absence of a single measure that can achieve high levels of risk reduction, Air Canada took the alternative approach of using a combination of biosafety measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, as far as practical, at the earlier stages of the pandemic. In addition to limiting travel to COVID-19 hot spots in those early stages, we focused on our front-line crew and customers. Working with our unions and crew, crew were provided with masks, and our check-in, boarding procedures and on-board service process was redesigned to reduce and minimize interaction with customers in order to reduce risk for both groups.

As the pandemic continued to spread and we realized that this was not a short-term problem, we further redesigned our customer experience to enhance our existing health systems, such as advanced HEPA filters on aircraft, which refresh air every several minutes and capture 99.9% of airborne pathogens.

In consultation with other medical experts, we introduced the Air Canada CleanCare+ program, a first of its kind in the industry and certainly in Canada. This program utilizes electrostatic sprayers; provides customers, in addition to staff, with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer in a kit; scans customers for temperature, a policy that has been recently adopted by the federal government; and further minimizes direct contact between staff and customers during the travel experience.

While no one single measure is a sure way to prevent acquiring COVID-19, the use of multiple layers of these measures certainly does reduce the probability that one might be exposed to the virus during travel.

As the world continues to adjust to the new normal, air carriers are also adopting new measures to ensure that air travel, with its benefits, can once again begin to operate safely and throughout the world. While border restrictions might have assisted efforts in containing the spread early on, both the WHO and PHAC acknowledge that it's not a guaranteed way to eliminate the risk.

Today, with a better understanding of COVID-19, we are able to better manage these risks, and we are seeing countries around the world adopt new measures and reopen their borders. Such emerging technologies include digital contact tracing, which the federal government and Ontario are soon to roll out in the form of an app, digital AI technology capturing contactless vital signs, and expanded and new testing technology. In fact, Air Canada is looking at cutting-edge Canadian technology that can screen customers for COVID-19 at airports and would further reduce the possibility that customers can spread the virus aboard aircraft.

The key to using these technologies is partnership with the federal government. The reality is that COVID-19 will continue to circulate in our communities to some degree and won't be fully controlled until a vaccine is developed and rolled out in mass quantities. I sense that there is a false belief that COVID-19 will be eradicated with current measures. It will not. We can only continue to minimize risk and cases in this environment.

Our goal should be to reopen the economy while putting in place measures to limit the spread and limit outbreaks. We are working to make air travel as safe as it can be in this environment for our customers and staff so that we can welcome Canadians back on our aircraft and help them to do business, visit friends and family and explore the corners of our country and the world.

Thank you.