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Ottawa eyes tasking airport security with vaccine verification for travellers

OTTAWA — Airport security agents may soon be screening more than your luggage.

OTTAWA — Airport security agents may soon be screening more than your luggage.

The federal government is mulling handing responsibility for verifying passengers' vaccination status to airport officers, rather than airlines — which hope to skip the headache.

Canadian carriers received three consultation papers from Transport Canada this week asking for feedback on putting an agency in charge of the proof of-vaccine validation process, according to three sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the Crown corporation known as CATSA that oversees passenger and baggage screening at airports, would take on the additional role in barely two weeks if the plan goes ahead following industry feedback.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that as of Oct. 30 all air, train and boat travellers aged 12 or older must be fully vaccinated, and have the documentation to prove it.

But a veil of uncertainty lingers over how that requirement will unfold, with carriers demanding answers on the patchwork of provincial systems and who will handle verification once a nationwide proof-of-vaccination platform and QR code come into effect, the timing for which is also unknown.

Airlines have been lobbying for CATSA to take the reins on vaccine checks at airports in what would amount to a shift from the current health protocol where carriers are responsible for checking passengers’ COVID-19 test results.

"Ultimately, verifying the legitimacy of people's vaccination records should reside with government," Andy Gibbons, head of government relations and regulatory affairs at WestJet Airlines, said in an interview.

"I can see the Calgary airport from here. You have four entry points for CATSA, and you have 90-some-odd gates across however many airlines," added WestJet spokesman Richard Bartrem.

"It is a much more efficient process and gets it into the hands of government agencies versus us as the airline to be verifying that."

The government continues to sort out how to knit together 13 different provincial and territorial documentation regimes into a single passport-like certificate, complete with a QR code that can be screened across the country.

The "technical administration" of a domestic vaccination document available in digital formats remains a work in progress, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Thursday.

"We are working very closely with the provinces and territories to implement that requirement, but the requirement is clear, and people need to plan their lives accordingly," she told reporters in Washington.

Transport Canada is co-ordinating with government partners and stakeholders to "develop the operational model for validating proof of vaccination for travellers," spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said in an email.

At Flair Airlines, chief executive Stephen Jones' development team is working on how to upload proof of vaccination as part of the booking and check-in process, in case CATSA does not assume sole responsibility — or only does so until the digital vaccine passport enters the picture. "But that is yet to be completed," he said of the upload plans.

"This is a federal mandate and that’s a federally run process, and so it would make sense to have it at that (security) point. Because failing that you can have people wandering around on the secure side of the airport without having had their vaccination status checked," Jones said in an interview.

"Health is run provincially, so I recognize that there are complexities to it."

Complications to both the eventual digital, single-source proof of vaccination and the more scattershot process of validating vaccine documents from various jurisdictions that will kick off Oct. 30 include factors like records for shots received in the U.S. as well as differences in provincially approved vaccines.

Nova Scotia and Alberta, for example, recognize any vaccine authorized by the World Health Organization, such as Sinovac, while other provinces and Health Canada have a shorter list.

Discrepancies exist between countries as well.

"It would be very important for Canada to agree on the kind of proof that can be used for vaccination or for tests with as many countries as possible," said Transat vice-president Christophe Hennebelle, stressing the government's role in vaccine checks.

"The more help we can get in planning and implementing that, the better for us."

The sector is also hoping to see the government allow more airports to accept international flights. Ten currently enjoy that status, expanded from four when Ottawa first introduced the restriction in February as part of a move to discourage non-essential trips, slow the spread of COVID-19 variants and concentrate the location of quarantine hotels.

Airports in cities such as Victoria, Kelowna, B.C., and Hamilton, Ont., that would typically book flights bound for the U.S. and Caribbean destinations as winter approaches now face a "big competitive concern," which also affects airlines, said Canadian Airports Council president Daniel-Robert Gooch.

"Many of these airports have flights that are scheduled, and those flights are at risk of being cancelled," he said, adding that some carriers have already begun to scrap flights.

Transport Canada said it will consider authorizing more airports based on demand, operational capacity and Canada's "epidemiological situation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press