International travellers may find themselves waiting at Canadian airports longer than they normally would during the holidays as the Omicron variant spreads worldwide.
The wait won’t only be thanks to increased traffic, but to added COVID-19 screening measures like on-arrival testing, which is designed to slow the spread of the new variant.
“The travel experience has changed since pre-pandemic times, and Toronto Pearson has been advising passengers for some time that they may experience longer wait times on arrival due to additional health checks,” a spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which oversees Canada’s largest airport, told Global News in an email.
“Arrival wait times vary significantly depending on the time of day but at this time I can tell you that currently we’re within the two-three hour window experienced during very high peak times.”
On-arrival testing and the holiday rush
In the past few weeks, Canadian travellers have seen the federal government impose several travel restrictions ahead of the holiday season, historically one of the busiest times of the year at airports.
Late last month, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced all travellers, except those from the U.S., who are entering the country by air were going to face on-arrival testing at an airport.
Before, only randomly selected passengers from international flights were tested at airports by private companies contracted by the government.
The on-arrival test, which is paid for by the federal government, is in addition to the pre-departure test before arriving in Canada, which was reintroduced on Tuesday for all travellers entering the country regardless of trip length.
Since the on-arrival announcement, industry groups have worried over the ability to test large amounts of passengers at airports.
Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, previously told Reuters airports couldn’t test all travellers without long waits.
“Do we really want people waiting for hours for a test in a customs hall?” he said.
“We want to avoid chaos, and we want to ensure that travellers who have booked trips are comfortable to travel.”
Canada has been increasing its capacity to test air travellers on arrival at Canadian airports, Duclos told reporters at a press conference Friday.
On Nov. 30, Canada had the capacity to test 11,000 air travellers a day, and as of last Friday was testing 21,000 a day, Duclos said.
Canada’s expected testing capacity has increased to 26,000 tests per day, a Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson told Global News on Tuesday.
Under the new rules, fully vaccinated travellers must quarantine at home until they receive their test results. They will either be tested at the airport, or receive a self-swab kit with instructions on how to use it.
Fully vaccinated travellers who test positive must isolate for an additional 10 days from the time they took their arrival test, the spokesperson added.
The rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travellers remain the same, meaning they will continue to be get tested upon arrival as well as on day eight, and they must quarantine for 14 days.
Meanwhile, fully vaccinated travellers entering from the United States, and who have not travelled outside Canada or the U.S. in the last two weeks, may be randomly selected for a mandatory arrival test. They don’t have to quarantine while awaiting their results, the spokesperson said.
Regardless, Duclos has been adamant that Canadians should avoid non-essential travel abroad, which follows a formal advisory the government put in place last Wednesday.
“I will say it again: now is not the time to travel,” Duclos said Friday.
Global News contacted several international airports to inquire about testing capacity and arrival wait times ahead of the busy holiday rush.
The Calgary International Airport has a goal of processing 1,800 tests per day, a spokesperson said. During peak wait times, it could take 45 minutes to an hour to get tested.
The testing provider at the airport can also provide take-home kits to those travellers who’ve pre-registered for testing, the spokesperson added. It hasn’t heard of any supply issues.
Vancouver International Airport has added more testing space to accommodate arriving travellers, a spokesperson said. Current wait times range from an hour to an hour and a half for passengers to complete the requirements at the airport – like customs and testing – the official said.
A spokesperson for Aéroports de Montréal, which oversees Montréal–Trudeau International Airport, said by email the agency has been working with the government and its service providers to increase testing capacity.
“These additional screening measures may lead to delays in border processes at the international arrivals level especially during peak periods,” the spokesperson said, but did not provide a time range.
Back in Toronto, the GTAA spokesperson said the agency continues to “work with the federal government and our agency partners to find efficiencies in the arrivals process while prioritizing health and safety above all else.”
Rethinking holiday plans
The recent travel measures implemented by the government are forcing some people to rethink their plans, said Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
Potter told Global News the slew of Omicron travel announcements is causing confusion.
“I would make sure that they continue, both before they go and during their trip, to keep an eye on what Canada is doing and what their travel and re-entry requirements are because as we’ve seen, things can change rather quickly,” Potter said.
“You want to make sure that you really understand what you need to do.”
Potter also advises travellers to check their cancellation and travel insurance policies before travelling, and to also have quarantine plans in place for their return home if they test positive.
Most of all, Potter hopes the travel restrictions are “temporary.”
“Make sure that you’re constantly evaluating the necessity of them,” she advises the government.
“The industry has been incredibly hard hit, and this is just another blow.”
— with files from The Canadian Press