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Canada's major airlines welcome new transport minister amid industry headwinds

MONTREAL — Canada's airlines welcomed the appointment of Omar Alghabra as the new federal minister of transport in a statement that emphasized the industry's continued challenges.

Mike McNaney, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country's major carriers, said the group is looking forward to working with Alghabra on restarting aviation and rolling out a national COVID-19 testing strategy for air travel.

“While we wish we could welcome Minister Alghabra under far less dramatic circumstances, the reality is tens of thousands of aviation employees have lost their jobs, billions of dollars in aircraft are parked and out of operation, and market capacity has been reduced by more than 80 per cent,” McNaney said Tuesday.

The cabinet shuffle arrives at a crucial juncture in relations between the government and Canada's airlines, which have repeatedly criticized Ottawa's response to the pandemic.

In particular, the government has held off on providing airlines with a major aid package, despite the industry's calls for targeted financial assistance, and refused to reduce the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international travellers.

Airlines have responded to the challenging business environment by laying off staff and cutting routes. Just last week, WestJet announced that 1,000 of its workers would be furloughed, temporarily laid off, put on unpaid leave or have their hours cut, blaming Ottawa's response to the pandemic for the measures.

As of Monday, Air Canada has also temporarily halted, or suspended until further notice, a number of routes in Atlantic Canada, a move that local airport officials said would be devastating for their ability to operate.

Alghabra, a member of Parliament for Mississauga Centre who was first elected in 2006, previously served in numerous roles in the federal government, including as parliament secretary to the minister of international trade diversification from 2018 to 2019.

Most recently, Alghabra has served as parliament secretary to the prime minister (public service renewal) and parliamentary secretary to the deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs.

Alghabra has helped secure government funding for the families of the victims of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752, which was shot down in January 2020 by the Iranian military. All 176 people on board died in the crash, including 138 people who were bound for Canada.

Marc Garneau, the outgoing transport minister, will remain in the federal cabinet, serving as minister of foreign affairs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.

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Jon Victor, The Canadian Press