Canada’s peak travel season is off to a turbulent start — and Canadian travellers should brace for more flight cancellations and airport delays this summer, industry experts have warned.
On Wednesday, Air Canada announced it was reducing its flight schedule in July and August to handle the ongoing flight delays and airport congestion.
COVID-19 restrictions coupled with airport service failures left the national carrier with no other choice, according to a former chief operating officer of Air Canada.
“Clearly, it’s something Air Canada did not want to have to do,” Duncan Dee told Global News on Thursday. “But they felt they had to do it because of the pressures they were facing as a result of federal service failures at the airport, namely at customs and also at security.”
A majority of domestic flights to Canada’s busiest airports were delayed or cancelled over the past week as the effects of an overloaded international network continue to ripple across the country.
Airlines and the federal government have been scrambling to respond to scenes of endless lines, flight disruptions, lost luggage and daily turmoil at airports — particularly at Toronto Pearson International Airport — a problem the aviation industry has blamed on a shortage of federal security and customs officers at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).
In the statement emailed to customers late on Wednesday, Air Canada President and CEO Michael Rousseau said the airline’s operations and its ability to serve customers with its normal standards of care have been affected as global travel ramped up after more than two years of the pandemic.
Rousseau said this was “not an easy decision” for Air Canada to cancel flights, but travel experts agree it was the right thing to do.
“The infrastructure was not there to accommodate increased pent-up demand in travel,” said Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure in Toronto.
In the short-term, the reduced flight schedule will help alleviate some pressure at Canada’s airports, said Dee, but it will inconvenience many travellers who had already booked flights.
“Things will get somewhat better, but I don’t believe we’re going to see anything materially better until after Labour Day,” he added.
Travellers can also expect higher air fares as a result of the cancellations, both Dee and Firestone said.
Who is responsible?
In recent weeks, airports — particularly in Toronto and Vancouver — have seen hours-long security queues, customs bottlenecks and other delays.
The Canadian Airports Council and other airline industry officials blame the COVID-19 protocols for the holdup, but the federal government says current health measures are in place to keep Canadians safe as the virus continues to spread.
While Canada has eased its travel restrictions this year, some still remain at points of entry, including the mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app, which will remain in place until at least Sept. 30.
“If the government keeps on insisting on its pandemic inspections at customs, it needs to do a better job of handling them,” said Dee.
Meanwhile, part of the blame also lies on Air Canada for overselling flights for which they didn’t have the staffing, resources and airport capacity to serve, said Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights.
“These flights should not have been sold to begin with,” he told Global News.
“It was irresponsible for Air Canada and other airlines to sell these tickets, and they will have to compensate passengers for those flight cancelations, which are entirely and solely within the airline’s control.”
The office of Canada’s Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said in an email that they “never asked airlines or airports to cancel or reduce flights.”
“Air carriers are responsible for their own operational decisions and we will keep working with airlines and airports to find important solutions to keep Canadian travellers moving,” the office stated.
For now, other Canadian airlines are going ahead as planned with their summer schedules.
In an emailed statement to Global News, Sunwing said it was “not anticipating any additional changes” to its service levels for the summer.
WestJet released a statement on its website Thursday, saying: “We have been meticulously planning for summer operations and over the past few months have proactively reduced capacity to ensure we can deliver a stable operation.”
Porter also intends to operate its summer flight schedule as planned, said Brad Cicero, a spokesperson for the Toronto-based regional airline.
Will customers be compensated?
While Air Canada has not commented yet about whether customers would be offered refunds or compensation, consumer rights advocates are demanding compensation from the airline for the hundreds of thousands of passengers whose summer flights will get cancelled.
A lawyer with Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs, Sylvie De Bellefeuille, said customers are “absolutely” owed compensation under Canada’s passenger rights charter.
The Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which took effect in 2019, require compensation — distinct from refunds — of between $400 and $1,000 for a cancellation or delay that is “within the carrier’s control.”
“I believe it is the decision of Air Canada to cancel the fights,” De Bellefeuille said. “Therefore people should have a right of compensation.”
Air Canada’s decision will result in at least a 15 per cent reduction of flights in July and August. The move will see more than 9,500 flights, or 154 per day on average, dropped from the airline’s schedule which is already operating at just 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
The flights link mainly to Air Canada’s hubs in Toronto and Montreal, and run along domestic or Canada-U.S. routes. No international flights outside of the United States were among the cull.
— with files from Global News’ Heather Yourex-West and Aya Al-Hakim, and The Canadian Press