Nearly half a million passengers were held up after arriving aboard international flights at Toronto’s Pearson airport last month.
Some 490,810 travellers, or about half of all arrivals from abroad, faced delays as they were held inside their planes on the tarmac or faced staggered off-loading to ease pressure on overflowing customs areas, according to figures provided by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA.)
In total, some 2,700 flights arriving from outside the country were delayed at Pearson last month, versus four planes — and a few hundred passengers — in May 2019.
Scenes of endless security and customs queues at large Canadian airports — and Pearson in particular — have played out all spring, with peak travel season still weeks away.
While the federal government has pledged to hire hundreds more security screening officers, hurdles ranging from staffing shortages to COVID-19 health measures threaten to cascade into a problem that overmatches efforts to drain clogged terminals.
“I think it’s just going to get worse,” former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee said in an interview.
“The only thing consistent that’s happened at Canadian airports for two months now is there have been delays.”
In an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning this week, Dee said he expects delays to persist until the end of August.
The federal government announced Friday it will suspend the mandatory randomized arrival testing for incoming vaccinated travellers at Canada’s airports, as the U.S. signals it will ease up on some testing requirements.
Starting Saturday and until July 1, only unvaccinated travellers will be required to take a COVID-19 test upon entry into Canada.
Airlines not configured to deal with delays: Dee
Passenger volume is only likely to increase, with the summer holidays about to kick off and the United States announcing Friday it will drop COVID-19 testing requirements for inbound air travellers from abroad starting Sunday.
That marks an end to major travel restrictions for U.S. travellers, although foreigners will have to prove they are vaccinated.
Passenger numbers still trail pre-pandemic levels, but debit and credit card purchases suggest bookings for travel and leisure activity now top 2019 levels, RBC chief economist Craig Wright said in a research note Tuesday.
Airlines, airports and Canada’s airport security agency have been encouraging passengers to arrive three hours early for international flights amid the travel surge and employee shortage. But airlines are not configured to deal with hours-long security and customs delays, Dee said.
“That crew that was scheduled to operate your flight? They’re out of duty time because the flight they operated this morning was held off gate for two hours,” Dee wrote on Twitter, referring to regulatory limits on hours worked by flight crews within one-day and four-week periods.
“That aircraft that was scheduled to operate your morning flight? Sorry, it missed its scheduled maintenance last night because it couldn’t offload its passengers on time because the customs hall was full.”
The head of Canada’s busiest airport is calling on the government to temporarily pause random testing on arrival in airports to help relieve some of those long lines.
“Toronto Pearson’s challenges are unique simply due to scale by virtue of the fact that we are Canada’s largest airport and global hub for connectivity all over the world, with much higher volumes of passengers and, importantly, more international passengers than any other Canadian airport,” said Deborah Flint, GTAA chief executive, in a news release Thursday.
WATCH | Long lines likely to continue until Labour Day, says former Air Canada exec:
Meanwhile a flight missed due to a long security queue or delayed connecting flight may take six hours to rebook since agents slated to cover the customer service counter are still working to board passengers on a different delayed plane.
Similar barriers confront baggage handlers.
“There’s no predictability to it. It depends really entirely on how either customs or security is working at that particular terminal in that particular moment,” Dee said in the interview.
Between June 1 and June 9, Air Canada cancelled nine per cent of its scheduled flights at Pearson, according to statistics from flight data firm Cirium. The scrapped flights were evenly split between arrivals and departures.
“These days, airlines are facing the double whammy of a shortage of pilots, flight attendants and ground handlers and then lumpy demand on their network. Some planes are full, and some are not,” said Cirium spokesman Mike Arnot.
Partially booked flights may be nixed in order to funnel passengers onto other planes and boost efficiency.
The federal government has pledged to hire hundreds more security screening officers, with Transport Canada also creating a committee made up of government agencies and industry stakeholders to address bottlenecks at security checkpoints.
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