WestJet to remove, ban unmasked passengers from flights

WestJet is taking tough new measures beginning next week against passengers who refuse to comply with federal masking rules on flights.

The airline says it will go as far booting passengers off flights who consistently refuse to wear a mask or face covering while on board. 

“If the plane has not left the gate and somebody refused to wear a mask, we will return to the gate,” WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims said in an exclusive interview with CBC News.

Sims said in “extreme circumstances” — if passengers continue to ignore masking rules — they will turn the plane around to its point of origin. 

Transport Canada requires everyone over the age of two wear a mask on board all flights. A recent order added that only those with an official doctor’s note are exempt from mandatory masking.

WestJet says it hopes to avoid the extreme measures of ejecting non-compliant passengers seen with increasingly regularity on U.S. carriers. “I have an obligation and a duty of care to our staff. I also have an obligation to every other guest. So my focus is on the 99 per cent of guests who continue to wear masks,” Sims said.

WestJet passengers in masks queue to check-in at Calgary International Airport. (Colin Hall/CBC News)

So, on Friday morning, the airline will announce that effective Sept. 1, 2020 it will implement an escalating response to those resisting mask use: 

  • Guests will first be asked to put the mask on by cabin crew.
  • An official warning will be issued that mask compliance is necessary.

If those two measures don’t get passengers to don a mask, there will be long-term sanctions. Sims said those guests will be put on a year long no-fly list. “We will let those guests who are in wilful non-compliance know that they will be suspended from flying.” 

Air Canada says, as a rule, it doesn’t publicly discuss safety and enforcement measures, but it did confirm it has “a graded approach, up to and including travel bans, to promote compliance with facial covering requirements.”

Air Canada will only say it has had a small number of incidents with passengers refusing to wear masks.

A young passenger wearing a mask at Calgary airport. (Colin Hall/CBC News )

‘This is not just a one and done’

WestJet says it has had 30 issues with passengers refusing to wear a face covering. CEO Ed Sims says that number may increase, “We are taking this opportunity to say this is not just a one and done. If you decide to be in non-compliance, you’re going to be paying that price for at least the next 12 months.”  

University of Calgary infectious disease specialist Craig Jenne says tough mask rules on planes are needed because physical distancing isn’t possible, “We need to bring in those other layers of protection, such as wearing a mask to avoid droplets spreading to the people not only near you, but perhaps circulating the air and even getting to distal rows on the plane.”

Ed Sims, president and CEO of WestJet, speaks during an interview in Vancouver. (CBC News)

Also beginning Sept. 1, WestJet will require all passengers to provide contact information at check-in, regardless of whether that happens online or in the airport. Passengers will no longer be able to by-pass that step. 

The goal is to be able to provide health authorities with the information for rapid contact tracing should a passenger on a flight test positive for the coronavirus. 

WestJet says it is working with the Vancouver airport and researchers to develop a pilot program where passengers on certain flights will be tested for the coronavirus to determine if pre-flight testing can help reduce the spread.

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