April 15, 2021 By Fred Jones
Demanding essential service vaccinations, even with some light at the end of the tunnel
Even as many provinces return to the lockdown in the face of new COVID-19 surges, there are glimmers of hope that we may be starting a long road to recovery from the pandemic. Recovery from the disease is one thing, but the recovery of the commercial aviation community is another thing altogether, and may take much longer.
Even for those air operators who have thus far managed to survive the pandemic, many of them will take years to dig themselves out of the debt that they have accrued in the last year. The same will apply to many of their employees who have been laid-off as demand for air services precipitously declined.
What’s more, helicopter operators must continue to remain vigilant for their workers who are largely operating on the frontline in all of this. The helicopter industry must continue to press PHAC and the Provincial Ministers of Health to ensure that our helicopter crews (flight crews, ground crews, and maintenance personnel) are provided with priority to receive the vaccine. Even the WHO and ICAO have recently declared that air crew should have a priority for vaccinations. HAC has focused its efforts on both the Federal Ministers of Health and Transportation and the Provincial Ministers of health, since the provinces have been given authority over priorities for distribution of the vaccine.
Furthermore, much of what we do as helicopter operators are essential services from firefighting ops to powerline and pipeline patrol to freeze-up and break-up operations and police services to moving vaccine to remote communities – to name only a few. Our crews often transition from non-essential to essential services in the course of the same day’s operations on short notice. HAC has released a template letter to its members and encouraged them to contact their Provincial Ministers of Health to obtain priority for vaccinating their crews – both flight crews and maintenance crews. (Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a copy.) We don’t often stand up to claim priority, but in this case we need to – particularly in the face of more infectious variants. During the summer season, our crews may be working anywhere in the country; and the vaccine could also go a long way to providing some comfort to provincial and regional authorities, who are establishing restrictions of their own, to complicate our lives even more.
I would argue, the pandemic may very well change the complexion of commercial aviation forever. Recently there has been an interesting dialogue with government over the “benefits” of being fully vaccinated while traveling by air. Even as the CDC declares that fully vaccinated people can travel with low risk of COVID 19, our government is hesitant to provide any relief from its conservative entry restrictions on any level. Even for domestic travel, but particularly for transborder or international travel, there is concern from our regulator that vaccinated individuals may still unknowingly be infected and transmitting the virus to others while traveling by air. It follows that the precautions that are currently in place – at least masks and social distancing, and potentially some mandatory Covid testing and some period of quarantine – may be with us for some time, yet.
Couple that with some recent discussions about how long the different vaccines are effective for, before requiring subsequent boosters (and a significant percent of the population who will remain unvaccinated), and we may never be able to let our guard down. Some will say, that in time, COVID-19 will be the new flu that individuals may elect to vaccinate against, but COVID-19 has a higher fatality and hospitalization rate – particularly for at-risk populations; and we all know the surges can reoccur at any time until a significant percentage of the population is vaccinated.
I know it is difficult to accept these circumstances, but I am eternally an optimist when it comes to banking on the resilience of the commercial aviation community; and particularly the resilience of Canadian commercial helicopter operators. This is a time when our industry must claim a priority for vaccinations. We must continue to pressure federal and provincial governments to provide some measured relief from travel restrictions for fully vaccinated passengers and crew members. It is clear that this is going to be a long road to recovery on every level.