(The Canadian Press)

‘A little bit scary for everybody’: Air passengers wary as new rules take effect

Masks or face coverings have been mandatory on flights since April 20

As Canada’s two largest airlines move to end so-called seat distancing, travellers have mixed feelings about stepping on board an aircraft in the age of COVID-19.

Starting on Canada Day, Air Canada and WestJet will resume the sale of adjacent seats, which they had largely blocked to help prevent viral spread.

Canada’s public health officer has expressed reservations about the practice, though it is permitted under federal transportation rules.

“We really feel it is important to avoid the close physical contact as much as possible. And if not, wear the medical mask,” Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday.

Masks or face coverings have been mandatory on flights since April 20.

Even so, “there are some difficult decisions for travellers, for sure,” Tam added, saying individuals should assess their own risk levels and need to fly.

Karen Kabiri took his first plane trip in five years on Monday after learning his mother had died in Iran the day before — just 20 days after his father.

“It’s very, very hard for us. That’s why I’m going there right now, to help my sister,” said Kabiri, 44.

The piano teacher from Toronto, who stopped over in Montreal before continuing on to Tehran via Qatar to help with funeral arrangements, spent several hours outside the terminal at Trudeau airport with his other sister, who lives in the area but could not make the trip. Enduring a light drizzle, the siblings adhered to Transport Canada rules that prevent anyone but staff and passengers from entering airports.

Kabiri said he had concerns about stepping into a packed cabin, though he credited Air Canada for providing all passengers with a mask, gloves, disinfectant wipes and a water bottle.

“It’s a little bit scary for everybody. You can see many people are affected by COVID-19,” he said. “It’s very hard for everybody in these situations to travel. But sometimes an emergency is happening.”

Claire Parois and her five-year-old daughter climbed aboard a Monday flight bound for her home country of France to join her parents after receiving approval to continue telecommuting until late August.

“We decided to spend the rest of the summer at my parents’ house where I don’t have to do the full-time parenting and full-time working at the same time, which I’ve been doing in the past 15 or 16 weeks,” said Parois, who works for the United Nations in Montreal. ”It’s been really, really, really challenging.

“My main concern would be to get infected and then infect my parents. Otherwise I’m not too worried,” she said.

With Canada’s border still closed to nearly all non-residents, international travel has barely budged since dropping by more than 95 per cent year over year in April. However, domestic travel is expected to edge up in the coming weeks and months as interprovincial restrictions loosen and the economy continues to reopen.

Anthony Morgan, who works on a Great Lakes bulk carrier, said he has a harder time with pandemic protocols on the water than in the sky. Until Monday, the 39-year-old wheelsman hadn’t stepped off the boat in three months.

“It’s like almost pulling your head off and bootin’ it over the side,” he said of being confined to the freighter.

“But flying home I definitely don’t feel like I got any concerns.”

Morgan took off Monday for St. John’s, Nfld. and plans to spend his month of downtime close to home in his outport community near the provincial capital. That includes two weeks of self-isolation after landing.

The sudden return of middle-seat sales is not unique to Canadian carriers.

Michelline Nesrallah said there was no distancing on her packed Qatar Airways flight back to Canada.

“There was no temperature screening when we got into the Qatari airport,” added the 39-year-old teacher who moved back to Ottawa this week after spending most of the past 14 years in the Gulf state.

“People aren’t really taking it as seriously as they should,” she said. ”I was standing at the baggage counter and this woman was literally touching me with her arm. And I said, ‘Sister, you have to stand back.’

Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the “key points” in preventing the spread of the virus, part of a guide it issued to the aviation industry in April.

“Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing,” the document states.

Some health experts have highlighted the risks of spreading COVID in crowded airports and sardine-tin cabins.

“Once it’s in the cabin, it’s difficult to stop air moving around,” Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said in a recent interview.

However Joseph Allen, director of the Harvard public health school’s Healthy Buildings program, has said the HEPA air filters used on most planes effectively control airborne bacteria and viruses.

In line with federal directives, Air Canada and WestJet conduct pre-boarding temperature checks and require masks on board.

Both airlines also implemented enhanced aircraft cleaning and scaled back their in-flight service in late March, cutting out hot drinks, hot meals and fresh food.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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