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WORLD: Air Canada waives fees on rebookings up to 24 hours before travel due to virus

This allows for a one-time change for tickets bought before March 4 for travel before April 30

MONTREAL — Air Canada says travellers can rebook recently purchased flights that depart before May without incurring a fee as part of the airline's latest response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The new policy allows passengers to make a one-time change to any ticket bought before March 4 for travel before April 30, provided the trip is completed by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, for Air Canada tickets bought between March 4 and the end of the month, travellers can now change their flight fee-free up to 24 hours before departure.

It adds leeway to Air Canada's announcement last week that it would waive change fees up to two weeks before any departure in March, with travel controls by foreign governments evolving daily.

The move follows similar announcements by several U.S. airlines this week, with United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines allowing passengers to rebook tickets to any destination through April 30 without paying fees.

The fee waiver by Canada's largest airline underscores ramped-up efforts to mitigate the blow dealt by the spread of COVID-19, which has seen bookings plunge and cancellations soar at airlines across the globe.

National Bank analyst Cameron Doerksen forecasts that the epidemic will cost Air Canada $1.4 billion in adjusted earnings this year, which would result in a 40 per cent decline from 2019.

The carrier has halted daily flights to Rome, Beijing and Shanghai through April. It has also cut back on routes to Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul.

Air Canada's one-time change fee waiver applies to all fare classes, from economy to business. Any difference in ticket price will apply, however "and any residual value resulting from a lower fare will be lost," Air Canada said.

WestJet is also experiencing turbulence, despite offering no flights to China — the apparent source of the outbreak — and only a handful to Europe.

The Calgary-based carrier plans to cancel flights amounting to 12 per cent "or more" of its flight capacity.

Reductions may include WestJet's domestic, transatlantic and sun destinations as well as flight to the U.S.

Other new cost reduction efforts include freezing discretionary spending, a company-wide hiring freeze and voluntary leave options.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced a $1-billion funding package to help the country's health-care system cope with the increasing number of new coronavirus cases and to help Canadian workers who are forced to isolate themselves.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2020.

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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press