Montreal

Did post-pandemic air travel take off too quickly? Some say yes

While the federal government, airlines, and airport authorities say they’re hiring and making changes, airports are still struggling to deal with the volume of passengers, and travellers are paying the price.

Staffing shortages, long processing times and spike in air travel make for turbulent times

A woman is sleeping under a blanket, stretched over several airport chairs with luggage nearby.
A traveller sleeps in the departures section of Montreal’s Trudeau Airport after her flight was cancelled. (Submitted by Walid Saad)

The travel stories keep coming in, and not in a fun way.

"It has been the worst by far," said Walid Saad after he and his family, including his 74-year-old mother, spent Sunday night sleeping at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport after their flight home to Chicago was cancelled.

"My wife spent the whole night crying, very stressful, we need to go back home," said Herblay Alonso, who said he and his wife's flight had just been cancelled for the second straight day, their luggage had been lost, and with no rental cars available, he didn't know how they'd get home to Miami. "We're basically stranded," he said.

The departures section at Trudeau Airport isn't an easy place to be these days. The airport's website had most departing flights marked as delayed on Monday, as well as a few cancellations. Some experiences at arrivals are no better, with complaints of long waits on the tarmac, in shuttles, at customs, and at counters tracking down lost luggage.

"I hope that I get to fly tonight, I don't know," said Giovanni Brusa, who, on Monday, showed up to Trudeau Airport for the third straight day, ready to spend hours in lines a third time, hoping his flight to France won't be cancelled for a third time while he's waiting at the gate.

"It's a mess. It's a mess this summer, you know I think that everybody wants to travel," says John Gradek, the academic co-ordinator of McGill University's Aviation Management program.

Gradek says as soon as pandemic restrictions began to disappear, airlines ramped up the supply of available flights dramatically, reflecting a significant capacity to put planes in the air. But Gradek says he and some of those airlines are now wondering whether that was a mistake.

"It's become apparent to me and to many travellers that the system isn't ready," he says.

Gradek says the shortage in airport and customs staff isn't the only thing that's holding up the hordes of travellers. Airlines too, he says, are scrambling to find staff for baggage handling and ground services.

Large amounts of unclaimed luggage are seen at Trudeau Airport in Montreal. (Submitted by Walid Saad)

Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), which runs Trudeau Airport, says it takes time to train new staff, and planes get stuck on the tarmac because there is no one available to connect the plane to the gate.

"If there is a shortage of employees on the ground then it can take a little bit longer to get to take passengers off the plane," said ADM spokesperson Anne-Sophie Hamel.

Air Canada says it has hired and trained more than 2,000 front-line airport employees in the last six months, but Gradek says it will take a long time, and a lot of money, for airlines and airports to recover from the staffing cuts they made early in the pandemic.

"The airline industry, the aviation industry, is not regarded as a great career," Gradek said

Watch | Transport minister defends Ottawa's handling of airport problems:

Alghabra says airport delays are being treated with 'greatest sense of urgency'

2 months ago
Duration 2:18
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra details how Canada is working to shorten wait times and delays at airports.

That hasn't stopped the industry, and the government, from trying to hire.

On Monday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said more than 1,000 had recently been added to the ranks of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, which handles airport security screening and "significant resources" have been added to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Alghabra said these measures, along with the removal of random COVID-19 testing and improvements in certain procedural bottlenecks, have shown positive results.

"However, we're still seeing issues at airports," Alghabra said. "I want Canadians to know that we're treating this with the greatest sense of urgency."

ArriveCan app isn't helping

If it is indeed that urgent, some suggest Ottawa should consider simplifying or doing away with the ArriveCan app, in order to speed up processing at arrivals.

The union for border service agents says too many travellers don't use it properly, and agents are spending too much time helping them with it.

"It's kind of a perfect storm of having the extra processing time of the ArriveCan app, which a lot of people are not filling out, and having less people working at the front line," said Mark Weber, president of the Customs & Immigration Union.

McGill's Gradek estimates that it now takes about three to four minutes on average to process each arriving traveller, while that figure before the pandemic was 30 to 40 seconds. He says he thinks ArriveCan is still necessary, although it could be "slicker."

The office of the federal public safety minister did not respond to a question from CBC about a plan to phase out the app, but in a statement it said that 99 per cent of travellers were using ArriveCan as of May 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Leduc

Journalist

Alex Leduc is a digital and broadcast journalist with CBC Montreal. He has worked in North America and the Middle East covering news and sports.

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