A shuffle in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has some in the aviation industry hoping that help is on the horizon for a sector that has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Omar Alghabra, member of Parliament for Mississauga Centre, has been brought in as federal minister of transport. Marc Garneau, who previously handled the file, is replacing François-Philippe Champagne as minister of global affairs.
Alghabra’s promotion to cabinet was welcomed by airlines. Mike McNaney, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, wrote in a statement issued Tuesday that the change comes “at a critical time” for an industry “in crisis.”
Airlines have not yet received industry-specific aid, McNaney wrote, adding that thousands have lost their jobs since the pandemic’s onset.
“While our challenges are many, we are committed to working with Minister Alghabra for the on-going safe restart of aviation, building on measures taken by countries around the world in particular the utilization of a robust COVID-19 testing strategy tied to quarantine and border measures,” McNaney said in the statement.
Dialogue with Garneau’s office was respectful, said Tim Perry, president of the Air Line Pilots Association’s Canadian branch. However, “it’s no secret that we’ve been frustrated with the lack of support our industry has received from the federal government, including the transport ministry,” he said.
Perry said his union hopes the incoming minister looks at how the industry can evolve through the pandemic, for example, by reassessing quarantine measures and testing regimes and looking at finalizing financial support.
“We’re hopeful that this shuffle will signal to not only some fresh eyes on the file but perhaps an adjustment to the federal government’s position,” Perry said.
The federal government has so far held off on providing airlines with an aid package despite the industry’s calls for targeted help, and has also refused to reduce the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international travellers.
The industry has lost 20 per cent of the market share traditionally held by Canadian airlines, Perry said. “We’re looking for immediate understanding of that, and immediate understanding that this is a $ 35-billion industry that has 100,000 jobs attached to it … that’s a major contributor to Canada’s economy.”
Changes to policy won’t happen overnight, warned John Gradek, faculty lecturer at McGill’s aviation program. “I think it’s a holding pattern right now for the government when it comes to further discussion … on the sectoral funding the industry is looking for,” he said.
A senior government source who spoke to the Star said moving Garneau out of his position as minister of transport was not influenced by more than the decision by Navdeep Bains to leave cabinet and not seek re-election. “Obviously, that left a position to fill … which minister Garneau is extremely well suited (for),” the source said.
Airlines have responded to the challenging business environment by laying off staff and cutting routes. Last week, WestJet announced that 1,000 of its workers would be furloughed, temporarily laid off, put on unpaid leave or have their hours cut, blaming Ottawa’s response to the pandemic for the measures. As of Monday, Air Canada has also suspended and halted a number of routes in Atlantic Canada.
Alghabra, first elected in 2006, previously served in numerous roles in the federal government, including as Parliament secretary to the minister of international trade diversification from 2018 to 2019. Most recently, he served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister (public service renewal) and parliamentary secretary to the deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs.
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