Staff alleging poor work conditions at airports as travellers suffer lost luggage and longer wait times

A relaxing vacation in Belgium quickly turned into a 19-day fiasco when Laura Pichette’s luggage failed to make the trip — just one example of the trials currently plaguing travellers and airport staff.

For nearly three weeks, Pichette waited for her bags.

“We waited and we waited and we waited, and of course the luggage did not show up,” she told CTV National News.

The cruise and vacation consultant’s luggage was lost for the entirety of her trip, only to be returned a week after she landed back in Ottawa.

“The interesting thing is we were not alone — there were about 8 or 10 other passengers in the same situation,” she said.

The experience is one in a litany of recent frustrations for passengers, many caused by staffing shortages.

Why are there so few staff right now? According to workers, some of the big reasons are that they’re not being treated well, and their pay is not sufficient for how difficult the job is.

“There are so many screening officers that have quit because of low pay and poor working conditions that the airports are severely understaffed,” David Lipton, representative of the USW union in Ottawa, told CTV National News.

On Monday, screening officers at 42 airports across the country are taking job action, dressing in casual clothes instead of uniforms to protest wages and working hours.

“Workers are working hours and hours and hours without breaks, in many cases with forced overtime,” Lipton said. “Their rates of pay are just not up to par. Many senior employees are leaving to find other employment as a result.”

These challenges are coming at a time when staffing is so short that some unions are offering screening staff hundreds of dollars a week if they don’t take a vacation or sick days. The union says improving working hours and conditions needs to happen as soon as possible.

With some experts raising caution about new Omicron subvariants, and the vaccine mandate dropping for domestic flights on June 20, there is concern that this could lead to even more staff leaving the job.

Lipton says in Ottawa there are usually 350 security screeners, but the airport is currently operating with just over 200.

It’s having a measurable impact on travellers, underlining how crucial these job positions are.

“There’s been more and more pronounced delays, one to two hours just to get through security,” Hunter Dickson, who was travelling from Phoenix, told CTV National News.

The upcoming job action is not expected to impact security waits and won’t take place in Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, where staff are under a different union.

The federal government also announced on Tuesday that they are aware of the delays and are working on solutions, adding that nearly 900 screening officers have been hired since April across Canada. They stated that wait times are going down, with around 10 per cent of departing passengers made to wait more than 15 minutes at Toronto Pearson International Airport in early June compared to 23 per cent in mid-May.

But after a nightmare endeavour, some travellers are ready to give up flying altogether until airlines have fixed the problems causing staff to flee the job.

“What I would say as a vacation consultant is, don’t go now,” Pichette said. “I mean, this will rectify itself, but it’s going to take time.” 

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