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Half a million passengers faced delays on international flights at Pearson in May

Airline ground crew walks past grounded Air Canada planes as they sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Half a million passengers sat aboard delayed international flights at Pearson in May. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

"Pearson airport is hell on earth."

So declared Ryan Whitney, a former NHLer, in a social media post from Toronto’s main airport this week.

The one-time Edmonton Oilers defenceman laid bare his exasperation after undergoing a gauntlet of lines, delays, cancellations, and rebookings during an Air Canada stopover at Canada’s busiest travel hub. He said he landed at Pearson at 3 p.m. on Sunday and didn’t take off for Boston until 1 p.m. the next day.

"I am so in shock at this place. It is the biggest disgrace known to man," he told his 414,300 Twitter followers in a selfie video from the gate.

"I’m gonna have a viral meltdown."

Scenes of endless security and customs queues at large Canadian airports — and Pearson in particular — have played out all spring, with peak travel season weeks away. While the federal government has pledged to cancel random COVID-19 testing at customs and hire hundreds more customs and security screening officers, hurdles ranging from staffing shortages to tarmac delays 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."

Nearly half a million passengers were held up after arriving on international flights at Pearson airport last month. Some 490,810 travellers, or about half of all arrivals from abroad, faced delays as they sat 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.

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.

And 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.

On Friday, the federal government announced it would suspend randomized COVID-19 tests of vaccinated passengers starting Saturday until at least June 30. The move walks back a previous vow to maintain testing at airport customs until that date and accedes to demands from the industry, which hoped to process travellers more swiftly.

The announcement came hours after chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said randomized testing serves as "an early warning system" that detects new variants as they filter into the country and indicates global trends such as infection rates abroad.

Three in 100 tests remain positive, she said.

Passenger numbers still trail pre-pandemic levels, but Canadians' travel spending — on airline, travel agency and car rental bookings — have topped 2019 levels since mid-March, RBC chief economist Craig Wright said in a research note Tuesday.

Airlines are not configured to deal with the ensuing 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," he 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."

Meanwhile a flight missed due to a long security queue or delayed connecting flight may take six hours to rebook — as in Whitney's case — since agents slated to cover the customer service counter are still working to board passengers on a different delayed plane. Similar snags confront baggage handlers.

"It just cascades," said Helane Becker, an analyst for banking firm Cowen, citing a lack of predictability.

"The watchword for the summer is patience."

Between June 1 and June 9, Air Canada cancelled nine per cent of its scheduled flights at Pearson, according to 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," said Cirium spokesman Mike Arnot.

"Some planes are full, and some are not." Partially booked flights may be nixed in order to funnel passengers onto other planes and boost efficiency.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, was bound for Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for work on Thursday, but wound up waiting on the Pearson tarmac pre-takeoff for four hours after a delayed boarding due to a dearth of flight attendants.

"And then they said they had a flight attendant, but now they didn't have a pilot, so they were flying in a pilot from Montreal," she said.

After disembarking from the first Air Canada plane, she sat on a second one for two more hours.

"It was very frustrating."

Ottawa has said the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) will have 400 more personnel deployed at airports by month's end.

But the hiring process takes time, with clearance from one of CATSA's three subcontractors and an RCMP criminal background check required, on top of clearance from the local airport authority and Transport Canada.

There are also different levels of security clearance, with a "relaxed" clearance allowing the agent to check boarding passes and a tougher-to-obtain full clearance permitting actual screening of luggage, said Teamsters Canada spokeswoman Catherine Cosgrove, who represents about 1,000 airport screeners.

An additional transborder security clearance makes it harder to staff checkpoints on international flights, adding to their typically longer wait times.

“It’s like rewiring a house while still living in it," she said. "It’s going to take months to a year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

— With files from Marie Woolf in Ottawa

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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