Toronto's Pearson airport has a PR problem: It's known as the worst airport in the world
Some tourism groups fear travellers may choose to bypass Toronto
Toronto's Pearson International airport — the busiest in Canada — has a PR problem, sparking concerns some people may avoid travelling to the city.
Disgruntled travellers passing through Pearson are posting about their bad experiences on social media, complaining about long line-ups, flight disruptions and missing baggage.
"Toronto's Pearson Airport is a special circle of hell. The worst airport experience ever," tweeted a traveller from Florida last week, along with a photo showing a departures board with more than two dozen delayed flights.
"This is a national embarrassment," said Walid Hejazi, an associate professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "In the short term, this is clearly going to impact Canadian tourism."
Toronto’s Pearson Airport is a special circle of hell. The worst airport experience ever. Good luck if you have to make a connection here. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/YYZ?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#YYZ</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/pearsonairport?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#pearsonairport</a> <a href="https://t.co/kSFfaPTn8q">pic.twitter.com/kSFfaPTn8q</a>—@NeonRaygun
Due to a sudden surge in travel, airports across the globe have been plagued with congestion and flight disruptions.
But Pearson's problems have garnered special attention, often because the airport has scored the top spot for the highest percentage of flight delays this summer: 57 per cent of all Pearson departures between June 1 and July 24 were delayed, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. That was the highest rate among the world's 100 busiest airports.
"Toronto Airport Is World's Worst For Delays," announced a headline in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Montreal's Trudeau International Airport scored the second spot with almost 53 per cent of flights delayed.
Toronto’s Pearson International has won top honors for airport service for years, but now it's at the epicenter of a global air-travel meltdown <a href="https://t.co/uDv3FlDlIl">https://t.co/uDv3FlDlIl</a>—@WSJ
As with many airports across the globe, Pearson's problems began when demand surged in May and many previously laid-off workers, including federal government employees, didn't return — causing staffing shortages.
"Aviation roles are highly skilled, so it's not as simple as hiring someone new and getting them on the floor of the terminal or out on the airfield," said Tori Gass, spokesperson for The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) in an email. The GTAA, a non-profit corporation, operates Pearson.
But the explanation is no solace for inconvenienced passengers.
Business traveller Eric Griffin of Philadelphia says he has sworn off Pearson for the time being, following his recent travel experience.
Griffin flew from Philadelphia to Toronto on June 27 for an important meeting with a prospective client for his phone accessories company.
Things didn't go as planned.
After Griffin's Air Canada flight landed in Toronto, he said it sat on the tarmac for at least two hours, and then he spent the following three hours dealing with his missing checked bag. The bag, which contained important sales-related materials, didn't surface until three days after his meeting.
Next, Griffin's return flight was cancelled, so he drove the 800 kilometres home to Philadelphia.
"At this point, I was just done betting on Pearson airport. I just had no faith they were going to get me out of there," Griffin said in a Zoom interview.
"My experience at Pearson airport was a zero out of 10 stars. I don't think it could have gotten worse."
He too took to social media, writing, "Don't ever fly to Toronto Pearson airport this year," in a Facebook post.
Although travel has surged recently, it has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. According to Statistics Canada, the number of foreign arrivals to Canada by air in June was down by about one-third compared to June 2019, when adjusted to account for recent changes in tracking air travel.
The Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) says the problems at Pearson, along with remaining travel restrictions such as the ArriveCan entry app, are hampering travel's comeback.
"Folks are deciding that, 'You know what? Based on what we're seeing, we're just not going to travel to Canada, to Ontario, to Toronto, because it's seen as being too cumbersome,' " said Jessica Ng, TIAO's director of policy and government affairs.
"It impacts … what people think of Canada as a premier travel destination, and it impacts tourism businesses just as they're getting out of two years of restrictions and uncertainty."
The Toronto Region Board of Trade said if Pearson's problems aren't resolved soon, it could negatively affect business travel, which picks up in the fall.
"From a reputational perspective, we don't want to get to that point and we need to get in front of it," said Jennifer van der Valk, a spokesperson for the trade board.
What went wrong?
Pearson is North America's second busiest airport in terms of international traffic, following John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, according to the GTAA.
On top of dealing with staffing shortages, GTAA's Gass said Canada's stringent travel restrictions during the height of the pandemic virtually ground the industry to a halt, making the ramp-up "a lot steeper than other countries."
Rotman's Hejazi argues there should have been better pre-planning, and that Canada's major airlines bit off more than they could chew.
"The airlines sold way too many tickets, more tickets than the airport capacity could handle," he said.
Canada's two biggest airlines, WestJet and Air Canada, said they both proactively cut back their flights this summer by 20 and 25 per cent respectively. Air Canada cut thousands more flights in late June as travel chaos spread across the globe.
Meanwhile, both the GTAA and the federal government said they've been working hard to increase staff and speed up the movement of passengers through the airport. Efforts to streamline the passenger process include moving random arrival testing outside the airport, and adding more self-serve kiosks at customs.
"We're seeing improvements, but we still have work to do to smooth the passenger journey," said Gass.
Transport Canada also noted improvements, stating that for the week of July 11-17, 58 aircraft were held on the tarmac at Pearson, a decline of 84 per cent compared to the peak period during the week of May 23- 29.
"This decrease shows the significant progress that has been made to date to streamline passenger flows at Canada's largest airport," said Transport Canada spokesperson Laurel Lennox in an email.
Still, for peace of mind, business traveller Griffin plans to drive to Toronto for his next business meeting in September.
"I can predict when I'll get there and when I'll get home," he said.