Canadian airlines haven’t gotten much of what they asked for from Justin Trudeau during the pandemic. With airports nearly empty, they’re now pinning their hopes on a testing experiment to convince the prime minister to relax some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 travel rules.

A new program in the western province of Alberta is testing international travelers for the virus on arrival. Participants who receive a negative result are allowed to get back to a near-normal life in about two days, though a second test is required several days later. Everyone else entering Canada must quarantine for 14 days, a rule that has not changed since March.

The lengthy quarantine and other restrictions -- including a ban on almost all foreign tourists -- have been a contentious point for a battered industry that Trudeau has balked at bailing out. Traffic at airport security checkpoints in Canada was just 14 per cent of last year’s levels in the first 29 days of November, versus 37 per cent in the U.S., according to data by the countries’ transport security authorities.

Trudeau said Tuesday his government has no plans to open Canada’s borders soon. With widespread vaccination still months away, airlines are hanging on the testing experiment by the Alberta and federal governments as a ray of hope.

“It has taken some time but we’re starting to see some footsteps in the snow,” Andrew Gibbons, director of government relations for Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd., said in an interview. The goal is to turn the program into a national one that will allow shorter quarantine times, he said, relieving pressure on financially-stressed airlines.

WestJet says international bookings have grown by double-digit rates since the announcement of the Alberta test. Yet about 135 of its 181 planes remain parked, a sign of anemic demand for air travel.

‘Global Outlier’

The relationship between airlines and Trudeau’s government has been a frosty one. Canada, unlike some other Group of Seven countries, has given no bailout to airlines, though it has given the industry other financial support such as wage subsidies and said it’s willing to negotiate further aid.

“Canada remains a global outlier and is ostensibly stuck at Stage Zero on the government planning process,” the National Airlines Council of Canada said Monday after the government’s economic update offered nothing new on financial help for large airlines.

Other countries are using tests to get more passengers in the skies. England last week unveiled an option to shorten self-isolation for travelers from high-risk countries to five days. Italy will open its borders to quarantine-free flights from the U.S.

Meanwhile, Hawaii is letting some foreign travelers bypass quarantine all together with proof of testing from an approved lab.

Canada is moving at a slower pace. The experiment in Alberta, which takes place at the Calgary airport and at one land border crossing with Montana, enrolled 7,800 travelers in a little more than four weeks. Edmonton’s airport may be added next year.

The program should continue regardless of progress on a vaccine, said Dean Blue, a senior adviser for Alberta’s health department. Trudeau has estimated it could take until September to inoculate a majority of Canada’s population.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Wednesday he’s pushing for a similar trial with the federal government at Toronto’s Pearson airport.

Politically, it’s not the time for Trudeau to appear lenient, as the country battles a second wave of infections that’s leaving no region untouched.

That makes testing the best bet for businesses like Jill Curran’s travel agency, Maxxim Vacations, which organizes tailored tours to rural communities in the northeastern province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In addition to Canada’s restrictions, Newfoundland had its own rules, including a quarantine, that made it hard even for most Canadians to visit. None of Curran’s clients who had booked this summer made it.

The Alberta testing plan “is something we are very anxious to see the outcome of,” Curran said. “Peak season is many months away, but we have to send a very strong signal to our customers that we are going to be open in 2021.”

Testing Capacity

To sway the government, airlines are also doing their own research. WestJet is sponsoring a project to investigate rapid testing for domestic travelers at the Vancouver airport.

In Toronto, Air Canada helped finance a study that had incoming international travelers take three virus tests during their quarantine. According to an interim report released last month, 1 per cent of participants had COVID, with 70 per cent of cases detected on the first day and almost all of them by the seventh. That suggests quarantine times could be shortened.

“What this shows if that if we want to get travel restored we have to have more testing capacity and we have to start working on building it up now,” said Vivek Goel, the co-principal investigator of the study at McMaster HealthLabs.

One pending question is who will pay. WestJet passengers traveling from Alberta to Hawaii, for instance, will each disburse $150 (US$116) for tests, a price the airline negotiated with a lab.

Testing may not be the game changer the industry is hoping for if passengers have to shell out for it, said David Gillen, the director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at University of British Columbia. Economic uncertainty is already keeping a lid on domestic travel, even though it faces fewer restrictions than international flights, he said.

“The demand is not going to be back probably for a couple of years,” Gillen said.

--With assistance from Alan Levin and Danielle Bochove.