Citing "volatile demand" and "instability in the face of continuing federal government travel advisories and restrictions," Calgary-based WestJet has announced plans to slash jobs and its flight schedule.

Airline officials say approximately 30 per cent of its current flight schedule for February and March will be removed and the resulting schedule will be a decline of nearly 80 per cent compared to the average for this time period in previous years.

Ed Sims, president and CEO of WestJet, says the airline has experienced "significant reductions in new booking and unprecedented cancellations" following the federal government's announcement of inbound testing as well as the government's continuation of a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for travellers.

"The entire travel industry and its customers are again on the receiving end of incoherent and inconsistent government policy," said Sims in a statement released Friday.

"We have advocated over the past 10 months for a coordinated testing regime on Canadian soil, but this hasty new measure is causing Canadian travellers unnecessary stress and confusion and may make travel unaffordable, unfeasible and inaccessible for Canadians for years to come."

Sims says the new policy left the airline with no other option than to place a large number of employees on leave, while impacting the pay of others. WestJet plans to introduce furloughs, temporary layoffs, unpaid leaves and reductions to the hours of workers.

The layoffs and furloughs will be primarily on the operations side and will include ticket agents, flight attendants and other staff members who work in airports. Staff on the corporate side will be required to take one week of unpaid leave between the beginning of February and the end of April.

"This is a cruel outcome for loyal and hardworking staff who have been diligently working through the pandemic."

As of 10 a.m. Friday, the airline confirmed the workers affected by the change had yet to be notified. WestJet says it has 5,700 active employees and 5,200 inactive employees, at present.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the challenges facing Canada's airlines — and passengers who had their travel plans halted — while addressing the media Friday morning.

"We have invested close to $1.5 billion in support for airline companies in this country to support workers with a wage subsidy, with other measures, because we know that the airline industry is extremely hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Trudeau. "People shouldn't be travelling and that of course is a direct challenge for the airline industries to manage through.

"At the same time, we've made it very clear that we expect people to be reimbursed. We expect regional routes to be protected. We expect certain things from the airline industry and those discussions about how we're going to make sure that people are protected, as we offer supports, are continuing."

Rick Erickson, a local airline industry analyst, said there were plenty of reasons why the government should bail out the airline industry. ,

"All this benefits the taxi driver in Banff," he said, "the vegetable grower in Brooks, the hotel keepers in small communities looking after their hotels and staff - all of them benefit from who the airlines bring here."

WestJet says it will soon operate at a rate of approximately 150 daily departures, returning to levels last seen by the airline in the spring of 2001.

The airline is suspending 11 routes including:

  • Calgary - Las Vegas
  • Calgary - Orlando
  • Edmonton - Phoenix
  • Edmonton - Cancun
  • Edmonton - Puerto Vallarta
  • Vancouver - Los Angeles
  • Vancouver - Palm Springs
  • Vancouver - Phoenix
  • Vancouver - Cabo
  • Vancouver - Cancun
  • Vancouver - Puerto Vallarta

This is a developing story. It will be updated throughout the morning.