Jacob Frey never thought international travellers would be on his WestJet flight from Calgary to Edmonton — until he spotted several passengers wearing sombreros in the waiting area.
After boarding the Nov. 22 flight, Frey said he learned that the passenger seated next to him and three passengers in the row behind were returning from vacation resorts in Mexico.
“I was shocked,” said Frey, a laid-off sewer construction worker from Saskatoon who was flying to Edmonton to scope out job prospects.
Frey worried that sitting near passengers who had visited resorts in Mexico could increase his chances of being exposed to the virus.
“People going to an all-inclusive resort during a pandemic, that’s inherently irresponsible,” he said. “So it’s obvious that health is not their primary concern.”
When Canadian passengers take domestic flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be sharing the cabin with international travellers on a connecting flight who have yet to quarantine.
Although many travellers entering Canada must quarantine for 14 days, they don’t have to start the process until reaching their final destination — as long as they have no COVID-19 symptoms.
When asked about this policy, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told CBC News that the risk of COVID-19 transmission on a plane is relatively low compared to other enclosed settings.
Many travellers take connecting flights
Since Canada closed its borders to most non-essential travel in late March, more than 1.5 million Canadians and foreigners have entered the country by air.
Between March and September, an estimated 17 per cent of air passengers arriving in Canada took a connecting domestic flight, according to data compiled by Transport Canada.
Several countries, including Australia and New Zealand, require travellers to quarantine at their first point-of-entry before taking connecting flights.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist, says that’s an extreme approach to combating the virus’ spread that may not go over well with Canadian travellers.
“I think in general, many people would not be accepting of having to stay in a quarantine hotel at that point of arrival.”
Dr. Bogoch, based at Toronto General Hospital, also said it’s unclear how beneficial a point-of-entry quarantine policy would be in Canada, considering the number of COVID-19 infections associated with international travel is small.
“It’s a drop in the bucket. So you have to ask yourself, would a policy like that significantly contribute to our pandemic response?”
Over the past eight months, the percentage of COVID-19 cases linked to international travel has ranged from 0.4 per cent in May to 2.9 per cent in July, according to PHAC. Last month it was 0.6 per cent.
Passenger tests positive
PHAC data also shows that, since March 25, more than 2,000 domestic and international flights in Canada have carried at least one passenger who, shortly afterwards, tested positive for COVID-19.
Frey learned five days after his WestJet flight that someone seated near him had tested positive.
He said he got tested and was negative, but Alberta Health Services still directed him to quarantine for 14 days.
“Basically, I’m sidelined for two weeks,” said Frey who’s self-isolating at a friend’s place in Edmonton. “It’s frustrating.”
He doesn’t know if the COVID-19-positive passenger was returning from Mexico. Even so, Frey said if he had known that international travellers would be on his flight, he would have cancelled it — unless Westjet provided assurances they’d be seated in a separate section.
“They can be the first ones on the plane, last ones off and keep them separate from everyone else,” he said.
WestJet told CBC News that it’s not necessary to separate international and domestic passengers on a plane, because the airline has implemented stringent health and hygiene policies, and Canadian health officials have found that the risk of transmission on an aircraft is low.
Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Teresa Tam said last month that protective measures such as mandatory mask policies, health screenings and effective ventilation systems have made planes a relatively safe place to be during the pandemic.
“The modern aircraft is actually really good in terms of air exchanges and the way airflow occurs in the cabin,” she said. “There have been very few reports — extremely rare reports, actually — of transmission aboard aircraft.”
WATCH | How airborne transmission increases the need for ventillation:
Dr. Bogosh agrees that the actual plane ride is fairly safe, but said there are other aspects of air travel that pose a danger such as boarding and exiting the aircraft, and picking up checked luggage.
“There is a risk because there’s more bottlenecks and people crowding together.”
He added that domestic passengers also pose a threat due to surging COVID-19 infections in Canada, so the best way to avoid exposure is not to travel.
“We should be staying as close to home as possible, avoiding non-essential trips.”