Friday,  December 9, 2022  4:30 am

Alghabra defends response to airport chaos, blames COVID; YYZ now 2nd worst for delays

  • Air
  •   08-22-2022  8:48 am
  •   Pax Global Media

Alghabra defends response to airport chaos, blames COVID; YYZ now 2nd worst for delays
In a testimony on Friday (Aug. 19), Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says the government “acted quickly” to address issues at airports. (File photos)
Pax Global Media

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra was hauled into a parliamentary committee meeting on Friday (Aug. 19) and grilled for an hour by opposition members over his response to the airport and airline delays that have wreaked havoc on travellers over the past several months.

As it has been well documented, Canada’s aviation sector has been grappling with a surge in customers this summer, as well as a litany of operational issues due to staffing shortages within airlines and federal agencies.

Opposition parties on Friday put Minister Alghabra in the hot seat, demanding some accountability for the problems, which have largely plagued Toronto Pearson International Airport.

“Does the minister believe that the government bears any responsibility, in any way, for what has transpired this summer?” asked Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman. “Yes or no?”

But Alghabra defended the government’s actions, blaming COVID-19 and the labour shortages that followed for causing months of travel disruptions that have, in many cases, left passengers waiting in long lines, held for extended periods of time on aircraft or without luggage.

Travellers pass through Toronto Pearson International Airport. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

“I hope that months from now, Canadians will look back and see their government was taking real action, doing everything we can to address the root causes of the issues,” said Mr. Alghabra, who appeared at the meeting virtually after recently testing positive for COVID-19, as reported by the Canadian Press.

“I hear that the answer is no,” Ms. Lantsman responded.

Xavier Barsalou-Duval, transport critic for the Bloc Québécois, accused Alghabra of blaming airports and airports for air travel’s inefficacies, instead of taking concrete action.

“The problem’s clearly on your end,” Barsalou-Duval said.

Alghabra once again defended the government’s approach, saying it “acted quickly” to intervene as air passenger numbers intensified.  

However: the surge in demand “ended up being beyond what was expected,” he said.

READ MORE: Calls to scrap ArriveCAN grow louder following tech glitch

He said the situation in Canada is different compared to other countries because the travel industry, faced with some of the strictest border measures in the world, came to a near halt.

"The hole that they're coming out of was deeper," he said, as reported by CBC News.

Minister Alghabra also defended Ottawa’s ArriveCAN app, a mandatory requirement for travellers entering Canada from abroad, saying it was not responsible for delays at the border, despite MPs, border officials and industry advocates suggesting otherwise.

"Definitely defensive"

Shortly after the meeting, one analyst offered up his two cents on Minister Alghabra’s testimony.

Speaking with CP, Duncan Dee, a former chief operating officer at Air Canada, said the Minister’s “tone was most definitely defensive.”

“He was desperately trying to broaden the focus of the committee to beyond just what he does – to all the other players – to describe the complexity of the situation, and in doing so, escape any responsibility,” Dee said. “It really reveals the mindset that, ‘Yes, this an inconvenience for us as a government, but it’s not something we’re responsible for.’”

Flight delays still an issue

Canada’s hard-hit aviation industry, which laid off thousands of workers during the pandemic, was seemingly caught off guard when the demand for travel, after months of pandemic-related lulls, came roaring back full throttle.

Labour shortages have crippled many aspects of airport operations, including ramp, gate and cabin crew, cargo, baggage handling and security screening.

And while the government claims that the chaos at airports is dissipating (“We are seeing significant improvements over the last two months," Alghabra said Friday), the drama is far from over.

READ MORE: Canadian airports, airlines top global list of delays; Pearson second-worst offender on earth

Toronto Pearson airport – which is facing a PR crisis as much as it is dealing with an operational crisis – still ranks high in global flight delays, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

Throughout summer, Canada’s largest airport has seen the most flight delays in the world and has only now moved to a second-place position.

From May through July, Pearson had the highest rate of delays among the world's 100 busiest airports (Montreal's Trudeau airport, notably, came in a close second), FlightAware says.

During that period, 53 per cent of flights departing Pearson and 46 per cent departing Trudeau arrived more than 15 minutes late at their destination.

READ MORE: Pearson seeing fewer flight delays, shorter wait times for baggage, says GTAA CEO

Adding to the tension is the fact more than 7,000 travellers, since May, have overwhelmed the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) with complaints related to flight disruptions.

As previously reported, it’s assumed that many of the complaints – which may soon reach 15,000 – will sit in limbo for some time as worker retention remains an issue at the regulator.

Meanwhile, the situation at Canada’s airports, in general, seems to be improving, according to the government’s latest stats.

Just two per cent of planned flights at Canada's top four airports were cancelled during the second week of August, and efforts such as the hiring of 1,700 screening officers and moving COVID-19 testing offsite of airports has helped ease crowd congestion.

ArriveCAN app (left); new eGates at Toronto Pearson's Terminal 1 (right). (CBSA)

FlightAware's data, too, shows a slight improvement.

Between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, 44.1 per cent of flights departing Pearson were delayed, dropping it to the number two spot.

(London's Gatwick Airport topped the list this time with 45 per cent of flights delayed).

Earlier this month, Deborah Flint, CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which manages Pearson, said the facility is focused on improving the passenger experience with new digital tools.

The GTAA and the CBSA, for example, added 10 new eGates and 30 more primary inspection kiosks at Pearson over the last week of July.

There’s also been an effort from airlines to make voluntary schedule reductions, Flint told reporters on Aug. 5.

“The progress made in recent weeks shows that this summer has been a transitionary period made particularly challenging by the length of time the Canadian aviation sector was shut down,” the GTAA said in a statement, noting that it is committed to “making systematic changes.”

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