The House of Commons transport committee has voted unanimously to launch a study into airport delays and flight cancellations, an issue that continues to plague Canada’s aviation sector.
The committee, announcing their investigation on Monday (Aug. 8), will invite Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to testify and will hold its first hearing by the end of next week, the Canadian Press reports.
“Throughout this the height of our travel season, the government has refused to listen to advocates, front-line workers and ordinary Canadians to make common-sense improvements to our country’s airports and scrap their continued measures leading to further delays,” Conservative transport critic and committee vice-chair Melissa Lantsman, told CTVNews.ca last week.
“There has been no meaningful improvement and our reputation continues to be tarnished globally.”
The move adds some authority to solving a problem that has sullied the air travel experience for several months now as understaffed airlines, airports and federal agencies grapple with a surge in demand.
Operational issues, from cancelled or postponed flights (some at the very last minute) to misplaced luggage, have hit Toronto Pearson the hardest as the facility struggles to restore service after more than two years of COVID-related layoffs and shutdowns.
Canada’s largest airport is also facing a PR crisis. Last month, Pearson claimed top spots for flight delays in the world, multiple times, according to flight tracking company FlightAware.
On some days, YYZ saw more than half of its flight departures delayed (and Pearson, it should be noted, isn’t alone in the struggle as other major airports – in Europe, for example – have reported similar challenges).
Better, but not great
Last week, Deborah Flint, head of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which oversees Pearson, held a press conference to address the situation, telling reporters that YYZ is seeing “measurable improvements” in delays, cancellations and wait times.
But the CEO was unable to say exactly when Pearson’s operations will return to normal.
Ms. Flint said labour shortages at Pearson’s agencies, contractors and airlines are getting better, and that airlines have made voluntary schedule reductions to ease passenger numbers.
On-time performance at Pearson is also improving, but it’s still a major pain point.
Almost two weeks ago, across the airport, just 44 per cent of all flights were on time (versus a 35 per cent average for the four previous weeks).
As for wait times at security check points, the most recent data from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) indicates that 82 per cent of passengers are clearing security in less than 15 minutes.
The GTAA said this is a one percentage point increase over the rolling average for the previous four weeks.
The issues unfold even though air passenger volumes have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.
On July 31, security staff at Canada’s eight largest airports screened more than 156,000 people, up from 68,000 on the same day in 2021, but fewer than the 176,000 checked on July 31, 2019.
The Government of Canada has promised to improve staffing in all of its airport security departments.
In its latest update, shared last Friday, federal officials noted that more than 1,600 CATSA screening officers have been hired across Canada since April and that the number of screening officers at Toronto Pearson and Vancouver International airports are now more than 100 percent of summer target levels.
The GTAA and the CBSA also recently added 10 new eGates and 30 more primary inspection kiosks at Pearson over the last week of July.
The new eGates at Terminal 1 give international travellers another option to present their customs and immigration declaration, whether it was made using the Advance CBSA Declaration feature in ArriveCAN or on the device.
Early usage data from Toronto Pearson and Vancouver airports indicates that using the optional Advance CBSA Declaration on ArriveCAN cuts the amount of time a traveller spends at a kiosk by “roughly one third,” the government says.
The GTAA says it has plans to unroll new tools that provide travellers with insight into what to expect at the airport, including interactive infographics and a peak times dashboard.
Meanwhile, some Canadian carriers are now facing scrutiny over their policies for compensating customers for flights that are disrupted.
Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) mandates airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or significant delays that stem from reasons within the airline’s control when the warning comes 14 days or less before departure.
But airlines do not have to pay if the change was required for safety purposes.
Air Canada and WestJet, for example, have both cited staffing as a safety issue, but according to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), treating staff shortages as a safety matter violates federal rules.
“If a crew shortage is due to the actions or inactions of the carrier, the disruption will be considered within the carrier’s control for the purposes of the APPR. Therefore, a disruption caused by a crew shortage should not be considered ‘required for safety purposes’ when it is the carrier who caused the safety issue as a result of its own actions,” the CTA wrote in an email to the Financial Post.
The CTA faced 28,673 complaints for the year up to March 31, including 12,158 new complaints and the carry-over of 16,515 reports from the previous fiscal year.
Of the total, around half involved flight disruptions, while ticketing and reservations complaints also numbered in the thousands.
With files from The Canadian Press