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Airline vacation ads face scrutiny as politicians named and shamed for their pandemic trips

A number of Canadian politicians have been caught flouting public health advice by going on vacations over the holidays, and Air Canada is now facing scrutiny for trying to convince regular Canadians to do the same.

A small group of politicians from across the country and across the political spectrum have been named and shamed in recent weeks for leaving Canada while ostensibly under lockdown, including Ontario’s finance minister, and an Alberta cabinet minister with an important role in the province’s pandemic response.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of some time in the sun to recharge after a challenging year. But leisure travel during a pandemic is at odds with the message of public health experts who say avoiding non-essential travel can help stop the spread of COVID-19.

That puts airlines in an awkward spot as they try to withstand the massive financial hit from the pandemic. 

Air Canada launched an ad campaign recently encouraging Canadians to consider flying to vacation destinations such as Hawaii and the Caribbean, as long as the right hygiene protocols are enforced along the way.

“Canadians can be exempt from quarantine and dive directly into island life,” an offer on the airline’s website reads. “Head to your local Shoppers Drug Mart for a pre-departure COVID-19 test before you leave, so that you can be exempt from quarantine upon arrival in Hawaii.”

The Globe and Mail first reported on Tuesday that part of Air Canada’s pitch to lockdown-weary Canadians has been to work with social media influencers to promote the notion that leisure travel can be done safely.

In a series of sponsored posts with the hashtag #bringingvacationsback, accounts with large numbers of followers have been praising the virtues of leisure travel with certain COVID-19 precautions.

Because of the Byzantine series of rules that govern travel to different countries, and requirements in different provinces upon one’s return, that sort of travel doesn’t necessarily violate any enforceable rule, but it does seem to fly in the face of what public health officials have been advising Canadians to do for months now.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it in no uncertain terms on Tuesday, telling reporters that “no one should be vacationing abroad right now.”

“You need to take this seriously.”

WATCH: Trudeau scolds vacation travellers amid rising COVID-19 case count:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters during the first media briefing of the year 1:35

Even some with a financial interest in the travel industry say a lot of what’s happening right now is reckless.

Martin Firestone, owner of Travel Secure, a travel insurance agency based in Toronto, said he’s lost more than 70 per cent of his business because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, he said it’s irresponsible for airlines to be encouraging people to fly. 

“They are physically paying to get the word out that it’s good to travel, it’s time to travel [and] enjoy yourself,” he said in an interview. “It’s wrong — it’s all wrong.”

In a statement to CBC News, an Air Canada spokesperson explained that social media influencers help the airline reach audiences that don’t follow traditional media.

“Recently we have been engaging influencers to explain our safety measures, implemented early on during pandemic, including our comprehensive CleanCare+ program, which allows our customers and employees to travel in complete confidence and responsibly, always according to current regulations.”

WATCH | Transport Minister Marc Garneau announces new rules on COVID-19 tests for air passengers:

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, along with other ministers, announced that all travellers must show a negative PCR test before boarding a plane heading for Canada. 1:10

The airline industry has been walloped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has wiped out much of the demand for travel. In its last earnings report, Air Canada revealed it is burning through up to $14 million a day while it stays in business and waits for a return to normalcy.

John Gradek, a faculty lecturer at McGill University in Montreal and a former executive with Air Canada, said it isn’t surprising to see airlines trying to make money given the bind they are in financially.

“Christmas is a very, very important time of year for carriers to be able to fill their airplanes and make some money. And that’s what they’re doing,” he told CBC News in a recent interview.

Prof. Wayne Smith of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto says airlines typically make most of their money from business travel, but since that has yet to rebound, all they’re left with is leisure travel to stay afloat.

“The only place they can go is the leisure market [which] is a very profitable type of travel,” he said in an interview. “It’s one of the only ones that they could go into … and at least try to scrape by.”

People miss travelling

Ken Wong, a business professor at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, says promoting air travel is not only irresponsible right now, it’s not necessary.

“It’s not needed because every survey we see lists the need to travel as one of the first or second things people will do once we return to pre-pandemic life,” he said in an interview.

“There’s no need to create demand for air travel. That demand already exists.”

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