Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on Wednesday (May 11) addressed the long lines that have recently been reported at security checkpoints at multiple Canadian airports, saying that out-of-practice travellers are the ones to blame for the longer-than-usual delays.
After two years of staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are a tad rusty when it comes to airport processes, Alghabra implied yesterday as he spoke to reporters.
The situation has forced some travellers to wait in line for hours, reports say, resulting in high stress and missed flights.
“Taking out the laptops, taking out the fluids – all that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,'' Alghabra said yesterday, as reported by the Canadian Press.
Ever-changing flight schedules are also causing large volumes of flights leaving and arriving at the same time, resulting in big bottlenecks at some periods of the day, Alghabra said.
“They need to adjust for that…It wasn't as pronounced as it is right now, the peaks and valleys.''
Last-minute bookings, too, are messing up the flow at airports, the Minister said.
“CATSA used to rely on a six-month forecast when it comes to labour allocation. Now they need to rely on a 72-hour, 48-hour volume prediction. They're adjusting,'' said Alghabra, who met with Mike Saunders, CEO of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, on Monday to discussed the “unacceptable” wait times at Canada’s airports.
Alghabra’s commentary comes as COVID-19 border restrictions ease both at home and abroad, sparking a boost in consumer confidence and intensifying traffic levels.
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.
Though lower than pre-pandemic levels, that’s still 17 times higher compared to the same period last year.
The "chaotic conga line"
Reports of travellers experiencing chaotic delays – at Toronto Pearson International, in particular – first surfaced earlier this month.
As reported by CBC News on May 2, Matthew Green, NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, arrived at YYZ about 90 minutes before his 8:10 a.m. flight to Ottawa and was thrown into a line of some 500 people outside his gate – a scene that he described as a "disorganized, chaotic conga line."
The wait times at Pearson were apparently so bad that day that CATSA CEO Mike Saunders had to issue an apology to travellers, blaming the delays on staffing and recruitment challenges.
“CATSA is currently experiencing the pent-up demand for air travel occasioned by the pandemic,” wrote Saunders. “This follows two tumultuous years that resulted in a significant number of layoffs throughout the aviation industry, including the security-screening workforce.”
The CATSA, these days, is advising passengers to arrive at their airport “well in advance of their flights” – two hours for domestic and three hours for U.S. and international destinations.
For U.S. flights out of Pearson, in particular, three-and-a-half hours might be a more accurate recommendation – PAX, just yesterday, nearly missed a 6:15 a.m. flight from YYZ to Atlanta due to long lines at security and U.S. customs, despite arriving at the airport at 2:45 a.m.
Advanced check-in, in some cases, is not possible, depending on a traveller's final destination, as some carriers require in-person verification of travel docs (such as negative antigen tests or pre-departure custom forms) before issuing a boarding pass.
In other words, passengers with carry-ons, in some scenarios, have to join the luggage line to obtain their ticket at the desk, delaying the process.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which manages and operates Pearson airport, has since called on the Government of Canada to intervene.
In addition to calling for the elimination of inbound public health requirements at airports, which should help to alleviate bottlenecks for international arrivals, the GTAA is also highlighting the need for more workers to achieve global service standards.
The authority is also calling on Ottawa to work with the U.S. to ensure staffing and capacity at pre-clearance sites returns to pre-pandemic levels.
But Minister Alghabra says it’s not a staffing issue.
Yesterday, the Transport 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.
But industry insiders disagree – as reported by the Canadian Press, the Canadian Airports Council (CAC) reiterated that low staff levels is the number one issue at airports right now.
“The challenge here – the main piece – is labour, and being able to staff those peaks and being nimble enough to make it work,'' Monette Pasher told CP in an interview yesterday.
And air passenger numbers are only expected to rise in the coming months.
Domestic airline seat capacity for May is projected at 85 per cent of 2019 levels, according to the council, and 78 per cent for domestic, U.S. and international overall.
The CAC predicts the latter figure will hit 90 per cent by July.
Obstacles in the recovery
Meanwhile, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), on Wednesday, issued a statement, saying that long wait times at airports, and delays in getting passports renewed, is creating further obstacles in the sector’s recovery.
“Canada’s travel industry, including travel agencies and independent travel agents, is just beginning the long road to recovery,” stated Wendy Paradis, president of ACTA. “It is essential that travellers have an efficient airport and passport process.”
ACTA says it has heard of travellers cancelling reservations, or deferring travel, because of these delays, hindering the trade’s recovery efforts.
As such, the association is urging its federal contacts, including the Minister of Transport, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and the Minister of Tourism, to “act expeditiously” to relieve airports and passport offices from “unnecessary administrative burdens” and “divert human resources” from other programs until labour normalizes.
"We are painfully and inexcusably behind"
Meanwhile, Toronto business leaders, including reps from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Toronto Global, and AccorHotels, held a press conference this morning (May 12) at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to “urgently address” government agency issues plaguing travellers at YYZ.
Pre-pandemic, CBSA processing at Pearson took on average 30 seconds for an arriving passenger, the groups pointed out in a news release.
Now, processing "can take up to four times longer."
"The increased processing time stems from two leftover, non-science-based pandemic relics: on-airport mandatory random COVID-19 testing for 2,000 international arriving passengers per day and duplicate health checks and questions," the groups said. "These two public health measures could be immediately lifted to address issues at Canada's hub airports.
In a statement, Jan De Silva, president and CEO of Toronto Region Board of Trade, said "we are painfully and inexcusably behind in Toronto."
"To solve for the long-tail economic realities faced by our visitor economy we must demonstrate to potential visitors – especially our business visitors – they can travel easily and without undo challenge to our region," De Silva said. "In short – we need to make this a good experience. Competing cities around the world are doing this successfully."
"For this reason, we echo the GTAA and urge the federal government to take immediate action and remove legacy public health requirements to support GTA businesses and to help our city get back to normal."