Can we just go back to how things used to be?
The Conservatives are calling for the federal government to scrap travel restrictions and revert to “pre-pandemic rules” as Canada’s airports continue to face long line-ups and 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 motion, backed by transport critic Melissa Lantsman, also noted how Canada's international allies have lifted COVID-19 restrictions at airports and other points of entry and how Canada is, as a result, missing out on business opportunities.
Mainstream media stories in recent weeks have reported painstakingly long lines at airport security and border screening checkpoints.
In some cases, departing travellers have been forced to wait for hours, resulting in missed flights while international arrivals, in many cases, are being held on planes for long periods of time (to reduce crowding at Canada customs, it’s been said).
The result of "two tumultuous years"
The reason for this turbulence hasn’t been fully explained.
Some have argued that vaccine mandate screening and randomized COVID-19 testing at airport facilities is bogging down the process.
Currently, travellers entering Canada who are fully vaccinated are required to upload their vaccine receipts to ArriveCAN and they can also be selected for COVID-19 testing.
Unvaccinated travellers, meanwhile, are required to get a COVID test prior to entry, will be tested upon arrival, and must provide a quarantine plan.
Others say the problem has to do with staffing shortages at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).
Earlier this month, the wait times at Toronto Pearson International Airport were so bad that Canadian Air Transport Security Authority CEO Mike Saunders issued an apology to travellers.
“CATSA is currently experiencing the pent-up demand for air travel occasioned by the pandemic,” wrote Saunders on May 2. “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 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.
The Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), yesterday, called on the public safety minister and CBSA to increase the number of border services officers at Canadian airports to offer some 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.
"These delays are a source of frustration for all and contribute to the considerable overcrowding of already busy airports. I urge Minister Mendicino and CBSA to increase the number of border officers and review the infrastructure in place in order to speed up the processing of travellers."
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which manages and operates Pearson airport, has asked the Government of Canada to intervene.
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.
The situation unfolds as COVID-19 border restrictions ease both at home and abroad, sparking a boost in traveller 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.
While lower than pre-pandemic levels, that’s still 17 times higher compared to the same period last year.
Not a staffing issue, says Alghabra
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has sympathized with travellers who face longer-than-usual delays, saying that the government is ramping-up resources to alleviate pressures at airports.
But 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.
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 told reporters at the time.
“They need to adjust for that…It wasn't as pronounced as it is right now, the peaks and valleys,” he said.
Minister Alghabra 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 told reporters.
Those comments sparked criticism from opposition members.
“Instead of taking responsibility for the delays, the minister blamed ‘out-of-practice’ travellers for causing delays at security checkpoints,” said Lantsman in a press release.
Ottawa has “completely lost the plot”
Earlier this week, Duncan Dee, a former chief operating officer at Air Canada, took to Twitter to say that Canada’s airlines were being asked to reduce their schedules to help ease the lineups and delays at airports.
“Have just been informed that airlines have been asked to reduce their schedules (ie cancel flights) to assist w/ the Fed Gov-created mess at the airport,” Dee tweeted. “The Fed Gov has completely lost the plot. The solution to the chaos at Canada’s airports isn’t to force Canadians to cancel their long awaited travel plans. While countries around the world race to reopen their travel & tourism markets, Canada is looking to shut it down?”
Minister Alghabra later denied that accusation in a tweet of his own.
“I know that Canadians are experiencing long lines at airports – we’re working closely with CATSA & partners to address this,” the Minister tweeted on May 17. “Rumours that we have asked airlines to cut back on flights are not true.”
“Our partners and travellers can rest assured that we’re working hard to make sure the travel industry continues to bounce back.”