Air Canada cancels nearly 10% of Toronto flights for 7 days as staff shortage, passenger surge hits Pearson airport


People wait in line to check in at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on May 12, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Air Canada AC-T canceled about 360 flights at Toronto Pearson Airport — nearly 10 percent of its schedule — in the first seven days of June due to staff shortages and an increase in passengers at Canada’s busiest airport.

According to data Cirium, the airline data company that provided the figures to the Globe and Mail, flight cancellations are split equally between arrivals and departures.

An uptick in air travel demand has overwhelmed government agencies that conduct security, customs and immigration checks on passengers at Pearson and other major Canadian airports. The airline industry says the reduced workforce is unable to cope with the increase in passenger numbers while enforcing the rules related to COVID-19. Vaccination mandates for federal agency and airline employees have also reduced available staff, the industry says.

Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesperson, said the airline’s overall completion rate remains high, but staffing issues at government agencies have impacted operations. “In some cases, extended security and customs processing times at airports and recurrent air traffic control restrictions imposed on aircraft movements, particularly in Pearson, have forced airlines to cancel flights,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick.

Passengers complain of being held in parked planes before disembarking for customs clearance, and waiting a long time to have their luggage and bags checked before boarding.

As the summer travel season approaches, Monette Pasher, head of the Canadian Airports Council, said the government needs to ease bottlenecks by removing the health controls and regulations put in place to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. These include vaccine requirements for passengers and employees, and random tests for passengers, all of which take time to process and administer.

“We want to make sure the problem doesn’t get worse,” said Ms. Pasher from Halifax. “It really slows down the system.”

Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, told reporters on Wednesday that the government has taken steps to ease bottlenecks at airports, including adding 400 security checkers. He hinted that more steps will be taken, but declined to comment on what or when.

Mr Alghabra pointed to the regular meetings of a stakeholder group made up of people representing airlines, airports, public health, security and customs agencies. “Of course we are talking about bottlenecks,” he says. “We have made some adjustments, more adjustments are taking place.”

In a statement, the government said: “Our efforts are paying off – as security wait times at all major airports are getting shorter. While we are seeing some issues at Toronto Pearson International Airport that we have raised with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, the vast majority of airports across the country have no comparable delays.”

On June 6, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority screened more than 131,000 passengers at Canada’s eight largest airports, compared to 162,000 on the same day in 2019 and 17,000 a year ago.

The Crown Corporation is contracting the work with three private companies, which have laid off workers during the pandemic and are struggling to replace them. Canada Border Services Agency and US Customs and Border Protection, which offer pre-clearance for travelers to the US at some airports, face similar issues.

As the pandemic eases, passenger numbers are expected to increase in July, putting more strain on airport systems and frustrating passengers, Ms Pasher said.

Lineups, delays and cancellations have also plagued airports in London, the UK and Amsterdam Schiphol. Dutch airline KLM has canceled dozens of flights at Schiphol to ease congestion attributed to airport management.

Less than two hours away is Buffalo Niagara International Airport, a long-standing alternative to Toronto Pearson. The airport in western New York has seen a surge in Canadian numbers since April, said Pascal Cohen, senior manager of aviation business development, though it’s impossible to say why. “Is it because of the congestion at Pearson, or is it because Canadians no longer have to take a COVID test to return to Canada?” said Mr. Cohen.

About 33 percent of travelers who began their journey at the Buffalo airport in June were Canadian, according to terminal surveys. This compares to 25 percent in June 2019, before the pandemic halted most air travel, Mr Cohen said. In all of 2019, 38 percent of airport travelers departing were Canadian.

Even before Pearson’s congestion issues, the airport marketed itself to Canadians as a hub with shorter lines and cheaper fares and fares. There are no vaccine, mask, or quarantine requirements for air travel within the United States. Passengers flying within the US are also not checked by customs. Canadians and other non-US citizens entering the United States by land must demonstrate that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, but are not required to provide a negative test.

“We’re talking about two things: saving time, saving money,” said Mr. cohen.

In the UK, British Airways, EasyJet, Wizz Air and other airlines have canceled hundreds of flights at Heathrow Airport and Gatwick Airport.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has berated airlines for stopping selling tickets they cannot honor.

Heathrow Airport has warned passengers could suffer from travel disruption for another 18 months.

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, said travelers could endure another 18 months of chaos this week before the airline industry can hire enough people.

With a report by Marieke Walsh