A former Canadian airline executive says that responsibility for weeks of delays and cancellations at Toronto Pearson International Airport rests on the shoulders of the federal government.
Duncan Dee, who worked for Air Canada for 15 years until 2013, including a period as chief operating officer, told Global News that security and customs delays were creating “cascading delays” that have left airlines unable to plan or staff their routes.
“The root cause of it is really very poor preparation,” he said. “You have government agencies that are completely unprepared for what everyone knew.”
Dee explained the carefully timed balancing act aircraft and their crews attempt in order to run flights efficiently.
Specific time slots are set aside for aircraft to use gates and counters which, when it works, operate like a well-oiled machine.
However, delays in unloading passengers into the customs hall, for example, can stop gates being available for the next flight (delaying it) or leave crews without the hours they need to work their next flight (cancelling it).
“The assets that are involved — the aircraft, the gates, the counters that are assigned to a specific flight — can no longer operate normally,” Dee said.
“It becomes impossible because a flight comes into the gate that is two hours late, customs tells them they’re only allowing 10 off the plane every 10 minutes or 50 off the plane every 30 minutes and it basically (increases) the time an aircraft uses the gate exponentially.”
Passengers and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), the body that runs Pearson airport, have complained of bottlenecks and delays for months.
“We see airports across the world experiencing delays as the sector adjusts. We know Canadian passengers are also experiencing these delays at home and we understand their frustration,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Transport said in a statement to Global News.
Data from Flight Aware suggests the issue is particularly bad at Toronto Pearson Airport.
According the the flight tracking website, 28 per cent of all departures from Toronto were delayed on Tuesday, while 32 per cent of arrivals were delayed. On Monday, 41 per cent of departures were delayed and 38 per cent of arrivals.
Those results put Toronto in the top 10 worst delays of all major airports tracked by Flight Aware on Monday and Tuesday.
Data on Toronto Pearson’s website shows five per cent of departures and six per cent of arrivals were cancelled Tuesday.
In a statement sent to Global News, Air Canada, one of many major airlines that rely on Pearson airport, said operations had “been impacted by staffing issues at government third-party providers, particularly at Pearson.”
“If an aircraft is held at a gate longer than expected or a flight is suddenly forced to cancel, that can affect the schedules of the ground staff servicing the aircraft and crews, and disrupt subsequent flights,” the statement said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory called the delays and long lineups “unacceptable.”
“It isn’t just about people taking vacations. It’s about them, but it’s also about commerce and the economy and jobs and investment and reputation and that airport needs to be fixed,” Tory said on Tuesday.
The mayor’s comments came a day after former NHL player Ryan Whitney posted a candid video online chronicling his experience at Pearson while trying to travel to Boston.
“I’m so in shock at this place,” he said in the video, which has garnered a lot of attention on Twitter.
The Office of the Minister of Transport said it was working to address delays “as quickly as possible.”
“Transport Canada has established working groups with airports, airlines, CATSA, and the relevant agencies that are meeting every week to find tangible solutions to improve the delays in the travel process,” the statement said.
But Dee said the writing was on the wall — waning pandemic restrictions always meant 2022 would be a significantly busier travel year than 2021. He said the government was caught “flat-footed” by the surge in passengers.
He compared the impact of security and customs gridlock on airlines to a storm.
“This is like a thunderstorm that is totally outside the airline’s control that is going on non-stop for 65 days and the forecasters can’t tell you when it’s going to end,” he said.
“You’re basically stuck — you can’t plan any staffing around it, you can’t find more aircraft to service the travellers and there aren’t enough empty seats for people to be protected on if their flight itineraries are disrupted.”
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, as well as representatives from the GTAA, Tourism Mississauga and the Mississauga Board of Trade, recently said more must be done to ensure travellers are not facing long delays.
“From staffing shortages to onerous pandemic policies, the federal government must act quickly to address issues plaguing airports,” the officials said in a statement.
They said “short-term fixes can be instituted immediately” and would make a big difference for international travellers.
Those include removing mandatory random COVID-19 testing at airports, as well as the removal of “duplicate health checks and questions.”
“The last two years have been incredibly difficult for the travel and tourism industry,” GTAA board chair Doug Allingham said.
“As travel ramps up and our airport returns to pre-pandemic volumes, the federal government must continue to act quickly and help solve the issues plaguing air travellers.”
— with files from Global News’ Ryan Rocca and Caryn Lieberman