Wait times for passengers at airport security checkpoints have grown so long that at least two major airports are paying Ottawa millions of dollars for extra officers to help reduce the lineups.
The international airports in Toronto and Vancouver have each signed contracts with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) that give them additional screening resources, even as the agency absorbs another cut in its budget this year.
The airports have taken direct action after wait times started to get much longer in 2014 because of cuts to CATSA's budget that have continued this year.
The 2017 Liberal budget quietly chopped the passenger screening budget by another $10 million, despite an increase in passenger volumes and in the wages of screening officers.
"Security screening is one of the major causes of passenger dissatisfaction at Toronto Pearson and at most airports, where wait times are significantly longer than at many other major international airports," said Robin Smith, spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
"At peak times, passengers waited more than 60 minutes for screening services" in 2016, he said.
An internal briefing note from Transport Canada chronicles how CATSA's budget was steadily cut between 2009 and 2015.
"As a result, CATSA's budget for 2016-17 and ongoing is reduced from originally allocated levels by a total of $92.5 million," says the 2016 document, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
"In recent years, passenger volumes and screening contractors' billing rates have each increased by approximately three per cent annually without CATSA's reference levels keeping pace.
"Combined, these factors have effectively reduced the level of resources available to meet the growing demand, and, as a result, the level of service has begun to fall."
The Stephen Harper government in 2015 topped up CATSA's pre-board screening budget with a one-time infusion of $26.8 million to alleviate wait times, without increasing the base budget.
No legislated standard
The first Liberal budget in 2016 gave the agency a one-time addition of $29 million to deal with wait times, but then reduced the amount to $19 million in this year's budget.
There is no legislated standard for wait times in Canada. But CATSA measures how many passengers wait fewer than 15 minutes to be screened.
Before 2014, about 95 per cent of air passengers got through security in that time, but the percentage has dipped to the high 80s since.
And the agency has accordingly revised its "target" level to 85 per cent within 15 minutes at Canada's big eight airports, recognizing the new fiscal reality.
'The system will just continue to deteriorate.' — Daniel-Robert Gooch, Canadian Airports Council president
"Without a change to CATSA's funding, the system will just continue to deteriorate," said Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council.
"We have seen airports have to step up and make investments to keep the system going.… It's unfortunate that it has gotten to the point where they have to."
A business insider says the Toronto airport paid CATSA about $6 million in 2016 for extra passenger screening, and expects to pay about $10 million this year. The GTAA and CATSA both refused to confirm the amount.
The council and Canada's major airports reject CATSA's "target" wait-time standard, saying 95 per cent of all passengers should be screened within 10 minutes — a higher bar that would put Canada in the same league as big international airports, such as Britain's Heathrow.
At Toronto's Pearson airport in 2016, even with the additional screening resources purchased from CATSA, wait times fell far below the 95/10 standard the GTAA shoots for, says Smith.
Only about 72 per cent of Toronto passengers were screened last year within 10 minutes, with about 2.7 million passengers waiting longer than 15 minutes — some of them up to an hour.
CATSA spokesperson Mathieu Larocque says the agency and Transport Canada "are working together on a funding solution."
In the first six months of 2017, he says, an average of 89 per cent of passengers were screened within 15 minutes at the big eight — though those results reflect the additional screening purchased by Toronto's Pearson, Canada's largest airport. Pearson has been buying extra screening since 2014; the Vancouver Airport Authority recently signed a similar deal for the first time.
CATSA, created in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, took over security screening from Canada's individual airports. Screening services are contracted out to three companies — G4S Secure Solutions (Canada) Inc., Garda Security Screening Inc., and Securitas Transport Aviation Security Ltd. — each of which recently signed new five-year contracts with payment escalators that will regularly add to CATSA's costs through to 2022.
Air passengers pay into a fund to help underwrite security screening, up to $25.61 added to a ticket for an international flight. But the money goes into general revenues rather than directly to CATSA, which is dependent on government funding decisions.
In 2015-16, the total collected under the Air Traveller Security Charge (ATSC) was $721 million, the last year for which a total is available, up 3.6 per cent as the airline passenger business has grown.
Gooch says in addition to legislating internationally acceptable wait-time standards, the Liberal government should ensure the ATSC cash goes directly to CATSA to end the chronic underfunding.
"I think it's the heart of the problem," he said in an interview.
CATSA's three service providers screened 47.7 million passengers in 2010-11, and the agency projects 69.5 million will need screening in 2020-21, a 46 per cent increase over a decade even as its budget has been cut.
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