So You've Caught COVID And Can't Board Your Flight. Now What?
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
With a new and much-more-contagious strain of COVID now circulating, in the coming months an awful lot of people will find themselves staring at a plane ticket in one hand and a positive test result in the other. Here, we'll take a look at what Canadians need to do to rearrange their travel if this happens.
Before we start, a reminder: the Government of Canada effectively does not recognize antigen tests for the purposes of travel. Any reference to testing in this article refers to the types of molecular test (PCR, RT-PCR, NAAT, RT-LAMP) accepted by Transport Canada.
When Can You Fly To Canada After Recovering From COVID?
According to Health Canada, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 outside Canada after January 5th, is ineligible to board a flight into Canada for *at least* 10 calendar days after the date of their positive test, but even after that 10-day period, you've got to be without symptoms of COVID to be allowed to fly.
The wording on the travel.gc.ca website wasn't entirely clear, so I reached out to Health Canada's media team to confirm, and the standard they're using is calendar days, not elapsed hours. In other words, anyone who tested positive on January 11th, can't board a flight until January 21st. Also, note that this rule went into effect this week: if you tested positive prior to January 5th, then you still fall under the old standard of 14 days, not the current standard of 10.
The federal government's travel.gc.ca portal says you can show proof of your positive molecular test result showing that you tested positive at least 10 days - but not more than 180 days - before your scheduled flight departure to Canada. This positive test result replaces the need for the usual negative test within 72 hours of departure, and will also exempt you from any test-on-arrival or Day-8 tests after you return to Canada.
For unvaccinated travellers, or anyone who's had only their first dose of a two-dose vaccine, note that while proof of recent recovery from COVID will exempt you from the mandatory test-on-arrival, it may NOT exempt you from 14-day quarantine.
Confirm Your Testing Requirements
This part mainly applies to passengers whose destination is beyond Canada, but you'll want to confirm how your final destination handles people who have recently tested positive and then recovered.
Air Canada, Westjet and Air Transat each have embedded apps on their websites from a third-party service, Sherpa, that collects COVID border-restriction and testing information. Enter your origin, connection and destination airports, and Sherpa *should* return a full list of details on acceptable testing types and timing.
...on the other hand, when I entered my information for an upcoming flight from Dallas to Ottawa, Sherpa's widget told me that since I was flying from the United States to a third country, without leaving the international-transit area of Toronto Airport, I didn't need to take any COVID test at all. So, it's worth confirming Sherpa's advice with either the airline's website or that of the country you're flying to.
Rebooking Your Flight
Once you've worked out when you should be able to fly, it's time to contact your airline and rebook your flights. Jump on this as early as you can; particularly as I write this in early January, every airline in North America is currently getting hammered by a combination of winter weather, and hundreds of staff having to call in sick with COVID, so phone lines are jammed and hold times are extreme.
Even the frequent-flyer lines are seeing hold times of multiple hours. I know, I know, super sad, but my point is that I spend a *lot* of time on the phone with airlines, and call volumes are currently about as bad as I've ever seen. Be patient, be polite, and be prepared to spend quite a while on hold.
It's definitely worth trying to change your flight online before you call; as airlines continue to improve this function on their websites, you may find you don't need to speak to an agent.
Fees + Cost Changes
The other advantage to rebooking as soon as possible is that while all Canadian airlines are waiving change fees at the moment, most are charging a fare difference. Generally speaking, airfares start to ramp into "last minute" territory at either the 7-day or 14-day mark, so it's worth checking more than one date in case that puts you on the happy side of a price hike.
Air Canada has waived change all fees until January 31, with one free change after that, although it's hard to see how they won't follow previous form and extend this again. You'll pay any difference in fare, and on most routes this will start ramping up at the 14-day mark and get really ugly at the 7-day mark. You've also got the option to take the value of your remaining flights as an Air Canada Voucher, or convert to Aeroplan miles with a 65% bonus.
They've got a really solid re-booking engine that will allow many passengers to avoid calling in; I just used it the other day to add a few precautionary quarantine days onto the end of a trip and was surprised when the changes didn't cost a cent.
I was surprised to see Air Transat coming through with the most generous rebooking policy here: "If you have tested positive for COVID-19, contact us through our Air Transat app or call your travel agent to book a new return flight with no change fees or difference in price. You will be responsible for any additional costs, such as accommodation or health care."
Flair simply lists its Cancellation Policy and Fees, and Change Policy And Fees as "per flight, per passenger". They offer an optional $10 (per person, per flight) "travelFLEX" option to let you avoid paying change fees, only fare difference, which... just means the change fees start at $10 per flight? It's also not clear whether they waive this in cases of COVID infection.
While they don't seem to publish this, I am assured by Swoop's media team that "If a traveller contacts Swoop with proof of a positive test result, we will change their flight to allow them time to recover and complete the necessary quarantine based on their current location. [...] "our support team rebooks travellers and so there is no change fee and no difference in fare per this process". As well, for families and groups travelling together, where one or more members have proof of a positive test result, anyone who has come into close contact with that traveller is permitted the same change allowances.
For passengers who have not tested positive, Swoop offers a paid "ModiFly" service ($5-10 per person, per flight) that allows a free one-time change of date and/or time - though you'll still pay any difference in fare. Without this service, you'll pay a change fee of $100-150 per passenger, per segment, with no changes permitted within 72 hours of departure.
Westjet offers a one-time waiver of change fees for any flight booked before January 31, though like Air Canada it seems likely that they'll extend that deadline. You'll pay fare difference, or have the option to cancel and return the balance to your Westjet Travel Bank.
Check Your Insurance
This will be different for everyone, but it's always worth checking. If you booked your flights on a credit card, double-check whether the card offers any form of trip-interruption insurance, since that may or may not cover things like "hotel rooms while quarantined abroad" or "increased airfare to get home due to COVID".