The Canadian government says they’ve seen a decrease in airport wait times – specifically at Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and Vancouver International (YVR) airports where passengers have reported long-than-usual delays at screening and customs in recent weeks.
But let’s see what happens on Monday (June 20), and in the days and weeks that follow, when Canada’s vaccine mandate for travel on planes and trains is officially suspended, possibly intensifying foot traffic in airports.
The country’s vaccine mandate, which has been in effect since Oct. 30, 2021, affects domestic and outbound international travel.
Foreign travellers entering Canada still need to be fully vaccinated or qualify for an exemption (and vaccination requirements remain for cruise ship passengers).
Testing requirements for unvaccinated travellers remain in place and the suspension removes vaccine mandates for federal workers and transportation employees.
But suspending the mandate opens a door for every unvaccinated Canadian who has been itching to board a plane or train for the last two and half years – adding to the pent-up demand for travel currently seen among vaccinated individuals.
As a result, air passenger volumes, starting Monday, are expected to surge while bottlenecks at some airports remain as airlines tackle staffing issues.
The quick rebound in demand for travel, combined with long security and customs lines, and recurring air-traffic-control limitations, has led to cancelled flights – Air Canada, for instance, was forced to cut nearly 10 per cent of flights at Toronto Pearson during the first week of June.
The problem isn’t unique to Canada either.
With the recent easing of travel restrictions, short-staffed airlines in the U.S are also struggling with a surge in leisure travel, as Forbes reports.
Last week, 1,123 flights into and out of the U.S. were cancelled as of 1 p.m. ET Friday and another 2,548 flights were delayed, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.
Pent-up demand surprises
In Canada, the rate at which Canadians are returning to the skies has been so quick, even the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has been caught off guard.
Neil Parry, vice president of operations at CATSA, which screens passengers and their bags at airports, told MPs at the House of Commons Transportation Committee on Thursday (June 16) that he didn’t expect a surge this early on in the pandemic, according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen.
“The demand that occurred in April and May was well above our forecasted demand, I would wager to say above the industry’s expected demand,” Parry said. “We’ve recently seen the pent-up demand for air travel materialize at airports much earlier than I think many anticipated. As such, there were some challenges and servicing demand particularly in early May.”
Echoing updates shared by federal officials, Parry said that on the CATSA side, the situation is improving due to the recent hiring of 900 more screeners.
Incentives for employees to work during the busy summer months have also been offered, he said.
“I’m also happy to report that over the last three weeks CATSA has met its government-funded service level target of screening 85 per cent of the passengers in 15 minutes or less across the system,” Parry said.
Vaccine mandate could return
It’s important to note that Canada’s vaccine mandate for domestic and outbound international travel has been “suspended” – not permanently scrapped.
In an interview on CTV's Question Period this past weekend, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said it’s possible the mandate could be reinstated if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse this fall.
"We need to remain prudent, and if things change in the fall, we may have to again adjust our measures. I hope they don't get worse, but if they do, we want to make sure that we're ready to protect Canadians," Alghabra said.
As for what the threshold would be for the mandate to be reintroduced, Alghabra said there are a few variables at play.
"For example, if – God forbid – we have a variant that has a high infection rate but low hospitalization rate, then even if the hospitalization rate is high, we may not have to impose severe measures. But, if we have a variant that has low transmission rate, but high severity rate, even if the hospitalization rate is low at the beginning, we need to be prepared for a high severity," he said.
"I understand that it's uncertain, but we have to be responsible.”
In a separate interview with CBC News on Sunday (June 19), Alghabra, speaking again on the mandate, said it was his hope that “we never have to bring it back.”
“But for now, given the evidence and given the current public health situation that we have, we felt comfortable that it's time to suspend it,” Alghabra told CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live.
The move to suspend the vaccine mandate was not spurred by airport delays, Alghabra clarified, noting “transmission” as one of several factors that were considered when making the decision.
Take-home tests coming July 1
The Transport Minister also told CBC how COVID-19 testing will work once the temporary suspension of on-arrival testing expires at the end of June.
Earlier this month, federal officials announced a pause on mandatory random COVID-19 testing at airports for vaccinated travellers until June 30.
Unvaccinated travellers are currently still being tested at airports, but as of July 1, the government intends on bringing the program back for all.
Randomized on-arrival testing at airports at that time will be conducted off-site as part of a greater effort to decongest airport terminals, officials said.
Until now, it’s been unclear as to how this new process will take shape.
But Alghabra offered some clarity on the matter on Sunday, telling CBC that randomly selected arriving travellers, starting July 1, will receive a test kit to complete virtually at home under the supervision of a health professional, while unvaccinated travellers will be tested at a facility near the airport.