WestJet Airlines Ltd. is preparing for an “immediate and dramatic” uptick in demand in the wake of the government of Canada’s decision to remove pre-entry COVID-19 testing requirements for vaccinated travellers.
Ottawa announced Thursday that as of April 1, travellers arriving in Canada by air, land or water from any country no longer have to provide a negative COVID-19 test result to gain entry, as long as they’ve had at least two doses of an accepted vaccine.
The move comes after months of lobbying by the Canadian travel industry, which had argued that the requirement to seek out and pay for a rapid antigen test before boarding a flight home was an unnecessary barrier to family and business travel.
“Our view is that the desire to travel has remained throughout COVID, but it hasn’t translated into booking demand because of the restrictions that have been imposed on the industry,” said WestJet chief commercial officer John Weatherill in an interview Thursday.
In February, the federal government announced that double-vaccinated air and land travellers no longer need to present a negative result from a molecular test, such as a PCR test, before departure for Canada.
The government also lifted a mandatory self-isolation requirement for unvaccinated children under 12 returning to the country, as well as a blanket travel advisory against trips abroad.
Weatherill said WestJet has seen a dramatic jump in bookings as a result of these changes, meaning that March break is shaping up to be the airline’s busiest period since before the pandemic began.
“We are in some cases approaching the demand levels we saw in 2019, pre-pandemic, and that’s really encouraging for us. It’s going to be quite a busy spring break and spring travel season for us,” Weatherill said.
Earlier this week, WestJet announced it will restore 94 per cent of its pre-pandemic routes in time for summer. Most notably, the airline is restoring and even adding capacity to its transatlantic schedules — adding increased service between Halifax and European destinations like Paris, London, Glasgow and Dublin; as well as non-stop service between Rome, Italy and WestJet’s home hub of Calgary.
Weatherill said WestJet’s investments in its European network speak to the airline’s confidence in what the removal of restrictions and barriers will do for travel demand this summer.
“That is the region for us right now that is booking the most quickly. We have the most bookings at this point, relative to pre-pandemic, in the European region,” he said. “I think it’s really about pent-up demand.”
Many March break travellers booked at the last minute this year, Weatherill said, a trend that has existed throughout COVID and likely intensified in 2022 due to the rapid rise and fall of the Omicron variant.
“But I expect that as we recover from COVID, we’ll see a reversal of that trend, and people will go back to a more normal booking curve,” he said.
Still, Weatherill added that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way airlines plan their networks and schedules.
“We learn a little more through each wave, and we’ve become much more flexible and adaptable,” he said. “We’ve been able to adapt our schedule as required depending on what’s occurring with travel restrictions or the virus itself … and as we move forward, it’s going to be the same.”
—Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press