Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
OK, we’re calling the cops.
At least that’s what somebody at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) decided to do over the weekend as police were called in to handle tense conflicts between staff and furious travellers as tempers flared over cancelled flights, misplaced baggage and long wait times.
As reported by the Globe and Mail, several flights were cancelled at Pearson on Saturday (May 21) due to a severe thunderstorm that swept through Ontario and Quebec – a hurricane-like event that downed power lines, cracked trees and left many neighbourhoods without power.
According to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which operates Pearson, at least 10 per cent of all flights – departures and arrivals – were cancelled on Saturday and dozens of others were delayed.
READ MORE: Revert to “pre-pandemic rules” for travel, Conservatives argue; airport wait times “unacceptable”
That didn’t bode well for passengers flying in and out of Toronto over the Victoria Day long weekend, nor for Canada’s busiest airport, which is already dealing with an operational and staffing crisis that, for several weeks now, has led to longer-than-usual wait times at security check points which, in some cases, has resulted in missed flights.
But it wasn’t flight cancellations or delays that led to Peel Regional Police being called into YYZ at least four times on Saturday, the Globe reports.
Apparently, it was concerns over lost baggage that caused some irate travellers to blow their lid and almost come to blow with airline staff.
Passengers the Globe spoke to said there were “hundreds of bags left stranded at different locations around the airport” over the weekend, and as travellers inquired about their bags’ whereabouts, they were met “with a lack of answers.”
READ MORE: A “chaotic conga line”: Travellers face delays as YYZ grapples with staffing shortage
One passenger described the scene as an “angry mob of people from all over the world who had been waiting for hours.”
Even if Pearson passengers have been asked to pack their patience as the facility grapples with travel’s pent-up demand, that hasn’t stopped frustrated customers from pointing fingers – and in the case of lost luggage, it’s difficult to determine just who, exactly, is at fault.
Baggage handling, including removing luggage from aircrafts, putting suitcases into the system and loading items onto the carousel, is a responsibility of the airline and their contracted ground handling company, the GTAA told the Globe.
The GTAA, meanwhile, oversees the physical baggage system, including its maintenance.
The result of “two tumultuous years”
But Pearson’s problems run a lot deeper than some misplaced suitcases.
The cancellations that plagued YYZ over the weekend left some passengers with no other choice but to sleep on the floor at the airport or book a night at a nearby hotel, reports say.
The story adds to an already-tense situation at Pearson and other Canadian airports as travellers face long lines at border screening checkpoints and obnoxious holding times on board aircraft on arrival – and it isn’t just disgruntled passengers who are doing the finger pointing.
READ MORE: ACTA calls on feds to tackle airport, passport delays; Canadian air travel intensifies
Some aviation officials are placing blame on Ottawa for not doing enough to help improve airport services as Canadians return to the skies after two years of pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions.
The GTAA, for one, has outlined requests for reducing passenger wait times, which, as CEO of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) Mike Saunders pointed out previously, is due to ongoing staffing issues at the facility.
“CATSA is currently experiencing the pent-up demand for air travel occasioned by the pandemic,” wrote Saunders in a statement earlier this month. “This follows two tumultuous years that resulted in a significant number of layoffs throughout the aviation industry, including the security-screening workforce.”
The CATSA is currently advising passengers to arrive at the airport “well in advance of their flights” – two hours for domestic and three hours for U.S. and international destinations.
Revert to “pre-pandemic rules”
The Conservative party, last week, called for the federal government to revert to “pre-pandemic rules,” blaming added protocols, like health screening, for the delays.
“Canadians are currently experiencing unacceptable wait times at Canadian airports,” reads the party’s opposition day motion, presented Thursday (May 19). “Even though airports are still operating at reduced capacity, current restrictions have been cited by experts as ineffective and contributing to additional delays, costs, and confusion, as well as acute labour shortages.”
The Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), that same day, called on the public safety minister and CBSA to increase the number of border services officers at Canadian airports to offer some sense of relief.
"It is absolutely irresponsible of the federal government to let the situation stand as it is" said Mark Weber, CIU National President, as reported by CTV News.
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) has also spoken out, saying it has heard of travellers cancelling reservations, or deferring travel, because of the delays, and how that is impacting the trade’s recovery efforts.
But Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says the delays have nothing to do with staffing.
On May 11, the Minister noted how the security agency's staffing is at 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels while flight volumes are still below 70 per cent, so that can't be the main problem.
READ MORE: Out-of-practice travellers, uneven flight volumes causing airport delays, says Alghabra. Not staffing levels
Ever-changing flight schedules are causing large volumes of flights leaving and arriving at the same time, resulting in bottlenecks at some periods of the day, Alghabra told media at the time.
The Minister also placed some of the blame on rusty Canadians who are getting used to travelling again following two years of inactivity.
“Taking out the laptops, taking out the fluids – all that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,'' Alghabra said.
The turbulence unfolds as air travel traffic sees dramatic increases in Canada.
According to new data from Canada Border Services Agency, the total number of commercial air travellers arriving in Canada between the week of April 25 and May 1 sits at 459,412, up from 26,866 during the same week last year and 12,610 in 2020.
While lower than pre-pandemic levels, that’s still 17 times higher compared to the same period last year.
The rise in demand is a welcome change for airlines, which saw the bulk of their business tank at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and throughout periods of 2021.
WestJet, for instance, saw its highest 2022 single-day total to-date guest count on Friday (May 20), releasing an update in advance of the busy May long-weekend, saying that it expected to fly more than 55,500 guests on 534 flights that day.
The airline said its network is set to return to “near pre-pandemic levels” this summer.
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