Airline leaders question proposed vaccine requirements for passengers in northern Canada

Air Tindi’s base on Latham Island in Yellowknife. The airline’s president, Chris Reynolds, said the federal government’s announcement earlier this month that vaccinations would be required by all commercial air passengers felt ‘a bit rushed.’ (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Enforcement and effectiveness, as well as the frequency of medical travel, among issues raised

It’s been more than two weeks since the federal government said vaccinations against COVID-19 would be required for all commercial airline passengers in Canada — and it’s still unclear what that will look like in the North.

“Everything is [up] in the air,” said Glenn Priestley, the executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association. “Every three days I do a national conference call on this subject as we try to figure out what we’re going to do.”

As part of his mid-August announcement, Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transportation minister, said the vaccine would also become mandatory for federal employees as well as crews and passengers on interprovincial trains and large marine vessels with overnight stays.

The requirement would kick in soon, Alghabra said at the time. On Monday, his acting chief of staff, Shane McCloskey told CBC News in a statement the “specific details and parameters on vaccination requirements for federally-regulated sectors are currently being developed among several departments.”

Children under 12 will not need to be vaccinated in order to fly, said McCloskey.

“Not all travel is privilege”

In the North, Priestley and Chris Reynolds, the president of Air Tindi, both said they had more questions than answers about how vaccination requirements could be enforced. They also both noted the frequency of medical-related travel in the territories.

“The difficulty in the North is not all travel is privilege,” said Reynolds.

“If you’re in a community where there’s no access other than air access and you have to escape that community for certain reasons, whether it’s legal, whether there’s violence issues, domestic violence issues, whatever it happens to be, and somebody is vaccine hesitant — where do you draw the line?”

Reynolds said he’s encouraging his employees and Air Tindi passengers to get vaccinated, but he’s not enforcing anything until the policy is finalized and there’s more clarity from Transport Canada about how it can be carried out.

Verification process still unclear

Priestley, meanwhile, wondered how vaccination status would be checked on domestic flights without border security resources and how various systems individual provinces are developing to prove vaccination status would work together.

“Is it going to be a passport? A national system? Or is it going to be like a driver’s licence where every province has one?”

He also questioned if rapid COVID-19 testing at airports would be more effective at preventing the virus from spreading.

“If I come to you and I show you proof of a negative test that was done five minutes ago … does that not provide you with the safety you require to put me in your business or on your plane,” Priestley asked. “Is that not better than a double vaccinated person? Because a double vaccinated person can of course be contagious and not know it.”

Priestley said the association is working closely with the territories and doesn’t want to create more problems for northern airlines. But, according to Reynolds, it’s not something he’s panicking about.

“I personally feel it’s a bit rushed,” he said. “We’ll see what happens when the dust settles.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Inuit region of Arctic Quebec to adopt provincial COVID-19 passport, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Iceland sets up committee to examine COVID-19 response, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Berry firms moved harvesters from Lapland to East Finland even if exposed to, infected with COVID-19, Yle News

Liny Lamberink, CBC News

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She previously worked for CBC London as a reporter and newsreader. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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