Politics

Tensions rise over passenger delays at airports

The Canadian Airports Council is calling on the federal government to ease delays for arrivals at airports, and the transportation minister's office says it's working on solutions.

Passengers are being kept on planes for hours in some cases due to lack of space at airports

Passengers arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The Canadian Airports Council says congestion at airports is forcing passengers to wait on planes upon arrival, sometimes for over an hour. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

When Trevor Lau's Air Canada flight from Orlando landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Monday, he didn't know he'd be waiting over two hours on the plane.

But due to staffing issues at customs, the flight crew told him they'd only allow passengers with connecting flights to disembark in a timely manner.

"People were getting aggravated and disgruntled, complaining, and they were taking it out on the poor flight attendants," Lau said.

Finally, after hours passed, passengers were allowed to leave. A flight attendant remarked that the delay wasn't that bad compared to what they'd experienced recently.

But the ordeal wasn't completely over — a long line at customs awaited.

Lau's experience isn't unusual. International arrivals at Canadian airports are so backed up, people are being kept on planes for over an hour after they land because there isn't enough space for the long lineups of travellers, says the Canadian Airports Council.

Lau says he doesn't know who to blame for the delay — but the council does.

It's calling on the federal government to do away with random tests and public health questions at customs to ease the serious delays passengers face when they arrive in Canada.

The extra steps mean it takes four times longer to process people as they arrive than it did before the pandemic, said the council's interim president Monette Pasher. That was fine when people weren't travelling, she said, but now it's become a serious problem.

"We're seeing that we clearly cannot have these public health requirements and testing at our borders as we get back to regular travel," she said.

A close up picture of a Canada Border Services Agency badge.
A Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer in Calgary. The interim president of the Canadian Airport Council wants to see the agency end COVID-19 health questions at airport customs checkpoints to help relieve congestion. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The situation is particularly bad at Pearson, Canada's largest airport, where passengers on 120 flights were held in their planes Sunday waiting for their turn to get in line for customs.

Sometimes the wait is 20 minutes, while at other times it's over an hour, Pasher said.

Airports are simply not designed for customs to be such a lengthy process, she said, and the space is not available to accommodate people. The airport is also not the right place for COVID-19 tests, she said, especially since tests are rarely required in the community.

"Getting back to regular travel with these health protocols and testing in place, the two can't coexist without a significant pressure and strain on our system," Pasher said.

Government working on delays, minister's office says

In a statement issued to CBC News, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra said the government is trying to address the delays.

"We are pleased that Canadians are excited to get back to travelling and we know there is more work to do as the sector continues its recovery. We will continue working hard with airports, CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority), and airlines so that the travel industry can bounce back," the statement reads.

Specifically, the government is hoping more screening personnel will address the delays and has set up a committee to investigate the problem.

"Transport Canada has worked with CATSA to develop a plan to increase the number of screening officers at passenger screening checkpoints," the statement says.

"Transport Canada also created the Airport Operations Recovery Committee. With participants from the largest airlines and airports, as well as CATSA, the committee is investigating causes and recommending solutions to address airport wait times."

The statement pushed back on a rumour, posted on Twitter, that the federal government asked airlines to reduce their schedules in response to the congestion.

"We can confirm that our Government has never asked, and will not be asking, airlines to cut back on their flight schedules," it said.

Public health measures have scaled up and down over the course of the pandemic as waves of the virus have come and gone. Right now, they are the least restrictive they have been in months, with vaccinated travellers being tested only on a random basis.

Still, the requirements are out of step with peer countries, said Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman. She said she wants to know why the Canadian government is acting on advice that is different from the advice used by other countries.

"We're effectively taking the government at their word that they are receiving advice and that they are acting on it, but they haven't shared any of that with the Canadian public," she said.

She said the lengthy delays at the airports send a negative message to travellers and she worries about the impact it will have on Canadian tourism as the industry struggles to get on its feet this season after the pandemic lull.

"It tells you to go elsewhere, that we're not open for business," she said.

Airlines need to cut back: expert

John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University's school of aviation management, said airlines have to account for the passenger volumes airports can handle and make adjustments to their flight schedules.

"Yeah the [COVID] protocols are there, but the protocols have been there for months — it's not a brand new thing, right?" he said.

Gradek said he sees no indication that the federal government is going to budge on public health measures at airports.

"They're not going, so therefore the number of passengers that are to be handled at an airport are less than what they were in the fall of 2019," he said.

Ultimately, Gradek said, he wants to see more cooperation from all parties to fix the delays and congestion.

"Everybody has to work together, and from what I see happening, it's broken down."

With files from the CBC's Meegan Read and The Canadian Press' Laura Osman.

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