Toronto’s airport is now worst in the world for delays. The reason may not be what you think
The security line outside U.S. customs in Terminal One at Toronto Pearson International Airport — the busiest airport in Canada and, according to new data, currently the worst airport for delays in the world — looks, at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, something like a diagram of the small intestine. Tired travellers wind in unruly lines from the closed security doors. They puff out into all available space, from kiosk to exit, shuffling in bulging coils, waiting for something — anything — to happen that will let them move.
Inside the terminal, the mood feels a bit like a nightclub when the lights come on crossed with a packed theatre at a slasher film. Everyone seems tired, wired and anxious. There are people slumped over asleep in chairs, on the floor, on windowsills and even one couple in a hammock. The whole place seems braced for something to go wrong. And no wonder.
For more than three months, Pearson airport, a global economic hub that links a region of more than seven million people to more than 160 destinations around the world and facilitates more than $28 billion in trade every year, has been undergoing an excruciating public meltdown.
The details, by this point, have been so well covered they barely need repeating: overflowing customs halls, delayed flights (more than half of all Pearson departures have been delayed this summer, according to data compiled by FlightAware, making it the worst in the world as measured by delays as a share of scheduled flights), missed connections, lost bags, stranded passengers, stuck planes and, of course, the planes that never leave at all.
More than 8,000 flights have been cancelled at Pearson so far this year, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company, a number so large it almost renders abstract the sheer volume of misery it represents. (Almost every passenger I spoke to for this story used, at some point in the interview, a variation on the phrase “and that’s when I started crying.”)
And things have only been getting worse. In the first half of March, there were 19 international departures cancelled at Pearson. In the first half of July, there were 293.
To call it a disaster, then, would be an understatement: for the airport, for workers, for the airlines, for the economy and especially for passengers. But for all the coverage, all the horror stories and carefully crafted PR excuses, the exact cause of all the chaos at Pearson has remained something of a mystery. The airlines and the airport have largely blamed the government, for keeping COVID restrictions in place and not having enough screening and customs staff. The federal minister of transportation at one point appeared to blame passengers who had forgotten how to move efficiently through airport security. Some analysts, meanwhile, have pinned the blame on global factors beyond Canada’s control.
But the true story of what happened at Pearson this spring is not actually that complicated. Over the last four months, I’ve flown in to and out of Pearson four times, to four different international airports — enduring delays, tarmac waits, bag lines, a cancelled return flight and, on one occasion, an unwanted night in a hotel near the Northern State Prison in Newark, N.J. I’ve also spoken to dozens of Pearson passengers, airline industry experts, union officials and airport workers in an effort to understand what is really going on.
What I found is that the dominant narrative around the problems at Pearson — that they’ve been caused primarily by federal COVID rules — is at best partly true, and at worst, some experts argue, not just false but deliberately so. In reality, those experts say, the number one reason why so many passengers have had so many problems flying in to and out of Pearson this year is that the airlines simply sold far more seats this spring and summer than either they or the airport had the staff to accommodate.
“The airlines have been very greedy, and you can quote me on that,” said John Gradek, a former Air Canada executive who now lectures in aviation management at McGill University.
That’s not to say the government and the agency that runs Pearson don’t hold any blame. They do.
But an airplane ticket is a commercial contract. It’s a deal between an airline and a passenger, and it’s the airlines, ultimately, that are, or should be, responsible for delivering what they’ve sold, consumer advocates believe. And in case after case this year, they haven’t done that. Instead, through endless cancellations and delays, they’ve ruined reunions, foiled vacations, lost bags and left families, many with small children — I saw them, every time I went through Pearson — stranded in empty terminals overnight.
“It was disheartening to see, you know? I saw a family with two young kids sleeping on the ground,” said Ashley Gusikoski, who endured two unplanned nights in Toronto, three cancelled flights and one set of lost bags while trying to get from Saskatoon to Timmins and back recently.
“There was a point where I was looking at getting a train because I felt like I was being held hostage in Toronto.”
But if the answer to what caused all that misery at Pearson is pretty simple — too many people travelling, too soon — the story behind that answer, the story of how the most important transport hub in one of the richest countries in the world was allowed to become perhaps the least functional airport on Earth, is a little more complicated.
That story involves bad forecasts, late plans, missed warnings, new strategies, low wages, added cargo, online shopping and something known in the aircraft world as “sixth freedom” travel.
It begins, as so many other stories did in Canada, in March 2020, on a day one Pearson veteran described to me as being like the last days of the Vietnam War, when hundreds of employers ordered tens of thousands of employees to hand in their security badges. “It was like ‘everyone leave Dodge,’ ” Sean Smith said. “The employers were saying ‘everyone’s got to go … Get out of the airport.’ ”
But what the airlines discovered this spring, and the airport, too, is that sometimes shutting something down can be a lot easier than opening it up again — a hard truth for which passengers and front-line workers, not airline executives, have overwhelmingly paid the price.
On June 16 at 3:15 a.m., two hours before sunrise on a bright, dry day in Toronto, Rebecca Stephen’s boyfriend dropped her at Toronto Pearson airport, Terminal One, for a 6:30 a.m. Air Canada flight to New York’s LaGuardia.
Stephen had a packed schedule planned for her three-day trip. She was going for Pride, to see and support friends, and she had picked an early flight to maximize her time in the city.
The first thing that struck Stephen when she stepped into the terminal was the crowd. “I have travelled a lot,” she said. “And this was the first time I had been to an airport that early and seen that many people.”
What she didn’t see, though, were many employees. The instructions from both the airport and the airline had been clear: arrive at the airport at least three hours early for international travel or you might miss your flight. But here she was, three hours early, along with hundreds of others, and there were no airline workers telling people where to go, no airport staff organizing the line and no government security contractors to screen passengers.
For Stephen, it was her first hint something wasn’t quite right at the airport that day. There didn’t seem to be enough workers to do anything, she said, a trend that grew more noticeable, with more serious effect, as her day wore on.
The screening zone finally opened at about 4:50 a.m., and Stephen made it through security and customs by about 5:30 a.m., with plenty of time to board her 6:30 flight. But her day at Pearson, unfortunately, was just beginning.
“I sat down. I had a couple of minutes to scroll on TikTok, and then I got an email saying my flight was cancelled,” Stephen said. She waited about 15 minutes to see if anyone would arrive at the gate to tell her what to do. No one did. So she walked to Air Canada customer service. There was no one there, either. “So I just kind of wandered aimlessly,” she said.
Eventually, Stephen was automatically rebooked on a 9 a.m. flight. But by 7 a.m., that, too, had been cancelled. She was told to try a 10:45 a.m. flight to Newark, but was denied a seat at the gate. Air Canada then put her on a 2 p.m. to LaGuardia, cancelled that flight, and booked her for a 4 p.m. to the same airport.
That’s when things started to get both really strange and really sad for Stephen. It already seemed clear to her, by that point, that Air Canada was desperately understaffed. The lineup at customer service was scores deep. The few agents who were at the desk couldn’t hope to deal with the volume of angry passengers they were facing.
“It was a very chaotic line,” she said. “People were fighting. People were yelling at each other.”
But for Stephen, at that point, things were still more inconvenient than infuriating. That began to change as she waited for her 4 p.m. flight. “I think myself and a lot of the other passengers that kept getting rebooked were starting to get frustrated,” she said. And it only got worse.
At the gate, there was only one agent working. Two pilots eventually showed up, but Stephen said she didn’t see any other staff board the plane. “The gate agent was just kind of standing there. And she couldn’t check our passports, because there was nobody to get us onto the airplane,” she said. At 3:48 p.m., 12 minutes before takeoff, Air Canada cancelled that flight, too.
Air Canada customer service agents would later tell Stephen and the other passengers that all cancellations that day were due to weather and that no one would be compensated for their delay. But by mid-afternoon that day, it was sunny and clear in both Toronto and New York. And Stephen says other Air Canada employees told her a different story entirely.
“I was told by staff — Air Canada staff — that it was due to crew shortages,” she said. “Honestly, I really don’t know what to believe.”
The staff issue was even more acute inside the terminal. As soon as the flight was cancelled, the gate agent disappeared and the waiting passengers began the long jog back to customer service. Soon, only Stephen and an elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, were left at the gate.
“Nobody from Air Canada had come back to pick up this old couple,” she said. “I’m not even sure how they would have gotten to the bathroom, let alone gotten back up to customer service. And it was really frustrating and upsetting for me to see that.”
Stephen waited with the couple for more than 20 minutes before eventually leaving to track down help herself. After walking what felt like halfway across the airport, she found an Air Canada employee sprinting in the other direction.
“She originally told me that she was too busy to help,” she said. “I made her stop running across the airport. And I said, ‘You don’t understand, there is an elderly, physically disabled couple, they are stuck. And I can’t wheel them both back myself. I need help getting these people back to customer service. It’s not even my job, but someone needs to help these people.’ ”
For Stephen, that experience was the final straw. She went back to customer service and asked them to cancel her flights. She had planned on being in New York for the weekend. Instead, she got on the airport train and went home, almost exactly 15 hours and four cancelled flights after she first arrived.
“I’m trying to be gracious to Air Canada, but there was a certain point where I couldn’t tolerate seeing those old, disabled people sit in their wheelchairs looking around, confused, wondering if anybody was going to come help them,” she said with real anger in her voice. “I can only imagine … how many other people were sitting around that day, how many other elderly people, people who don’t speak English … And I genuinely don’t think Air Canada cares about them at all.”
The Star sent a list of 17 questions to Air Canada in relation to this story. The airline responded with a long statement that read in part: “Air Canada’s management team and employees are professionals with hands-on experience in aviation, and collectively are working hard to look after customers.”
The airline said it operated about 1,000 flights a day, transporting almost a million passengers every week with “98 per cent of people arriving at (their) destination with their bags during June (and) July.” It did not say how many of those passengers arrived on time.
As for the problems at Pearson, the airline pointed out that, as the airport’s dominant tenant, Air Canada was always going to be “disproportionately” disrupted by any issues that arose during the recovery.
“Additionally, summer storms in the U.S. Northeast and Florida, where many of our Toronto flights operate to, and subsequent air traffic control flow restrictions in both Toronto and the U.S., have further added to these challenges,” the airline’s statement said.
“All of these factors compound the already long processing times at airports resulting in flight delays and in some cancellations, creating knock-on effects affecting all aspects of our operation.”
What Stephen experienced that day was a microcosm of what global experts, on-the-ground employees and industry analysts all agree was the single biggest problem facing Pearson and the airlines it serves this spring and summer: they just don’t have enough workers. “Almost all employers at the airport, there’s three or four hundred of them, are facing unprecedented labour shortages,” said Steven Tufts, a spokesperson for the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council. “They don’t have enough people.”
When Pearson scaled back operations in March 2020, a large number of the 55,000 people who worked for the airport and the companies that operate there were sent home. Only a fraction were brought back during the pandemic to keep the airport running. “I was (at) Air Canada, working Toronto Pearson at the time, and we laid off something like 80 per cent of our workers,” said Smith, a now retired passenger agent and long-time union organizer. “I had 36 years seniority and I was on the cusp of being laid off.”
Overall, Air Canada cut about 50 per cent of its workforce during the first few months of the pandemic, but that ratio was considerably higher for some airport roles. Chorus Aviation, which owns Jazz, Canada’s largest regional airline, cut about 54 per cent of its staff over the same period.
It wasn’t just the airlines either. Almost every airport or airport adjacent business was either fully shut down or running at fractional capacity during the pandemic. Baggage handlers, cleaning crews, security guards, flight attendants, gate agents, food service workers, ramp agents, fuellers, bridge operators: they were all let go in huge numbers starting in March 2020.
According to Tufts and Smith, most of them didn’t wait around for the airport to reopen. Instead, they went out and got new jobs. “You tell (most) of your workers to go away, they go away,” Smith said. “They find other things to do.”
For many of them, that other thing was warehouse work. As the airport was shutting down, the fulfilment centres and distribution hubs surrounding the airport were ramping up, trying to cope with a massive pandemic-induced spike in online shopping.
Hundreds of laid-off workers at Pearson, already used to long, odd hours and hard, physical work, slid directly into those jobs. “The warehouses all around the airport zone just absorbed those workers that were displaced,” said Tufts, an associate professor who studies labour geography at York University. “And they didn’t come back.”
Labour officials say they always knew the airport would have a hard time bringing those workers back when the pandemic slowed.
“We sat down with Deborah Flint, (the president of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, or GTAA), the quasi-independent body that runs Pearson) in April 2020,” Tufts said. “That was when the shutdown first occurred. And we told her specifically that you’re going to face labour shortages when this is over, because people will leave the sector.”
A spokesperson for the GTAA said the agency has worked closely with the Airline Workers’ Association since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result of that meeting, she said, the agency pivoted an existing workplace development plan to focus on recovery and has since launched a number of programs to support hiring and employment.
But despite those efforts, when flights ramped up this spring, neither the airport nor the airlines were ready. Air Canada had 27,300 full-time equivalent employees as of April 2022, just as passenger numbers were really beginning to climb. That’s 11,000 more than the company had a year earlier, during the heart of the first COVID winter, but still 17 per cent fewer than the 33,000 it boasted before the pandemic struck.
(In its statement, Air Canada said the company has now reached more than 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic employment rate after the “largest and fastest-scale hiring in its history.”)
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The company was no outlier. Airlines, airports and the third-party service companies that do everything from fuelling planes to moving bags and supplying meals at airports all over the world were facing a similar labour crunch, according to global industry analysts.
“I’ve been saying this from the start, that our industry could not be shuttered that long, and just flip the switch, and it turns back on,” said Monette Pasher, president of the Canadian Airports Council. “We’ve lost a lot of our workforce, and there’s labour shortage challenges out there.”
But this is where the airport story takes a bit of an odd turn. Because what happens, beginning in the spring, is that air travel inbound and outbound at Pearson begins to climb. And the airlines, the airport and all the agencies and employers that serve it seem completely caught off guard.
First the customs halls back up — there aren’t enough screeners or enough physical space in the terminal — then the security lines. Soon incoming airplanes are getting stuck for hours on the tarmac. Lost bags start piling up. (I saw them, row on row, stacked near the Air Canada office in Newark.) Eventually flights start getting cancelled in huge numbers, then delayed at record rates.
By late spring, Pearson is the biggest story in Toronto. One security screener I spoke to in June told me TV cameras were filming in his terminal every day. But it’s the smartphone footage from passengers stuck in customs pens, locked on landed planes, crying in departure lounges and standing over seas of lost bags that’s doing the real damage.
It’s even becoming something of an international concern, with stories in the New York Times and CNN pointing out just how bad the situation is.
“In recent days my daughter Sara travelled to Toronto, Canada, to take an English course,” a professor of urban studies in Mexico City wrote in a Mexican newspaper in July. “Her return, scheduled for June 18, was plagued by irregularities and abuses on the part of Air Canada. … Sara, who is 20 years old, had to spend the night on airport benches, as she was travelling alone and had to wait in line at two different locations. After waiting a day to board, again, the departure was delayed for hours; one of the reasons was that there were no available pilots.”
But if you step back and think it through, it’s hard to see how anyone close to the situation could have been surprised by the spike in travel at Pearson. The airlines planned and sold all the routes that are causing so many problems. It’s not like passengers show up in the morning and tell the airplanes where to fly. They knew how many employees they had and how many they’d need, not just for normal service, but to restart a complex system after a two-year shutdown while still occasionally losing whole crews to COVID isolation, not to mention dealing with a generational loss of employee experience and the burden of training thousands of new workers all at once.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, meanwhile, has to issue security badges, known as Restricted Area Identity Cards (or RAICs), to almost anyone who works at Pearson. They would have had at least a decent idea of the overall employment numbers at the facility heading into the boom. (In an email, a spokesperson for the GTAA said employment at the airport was “a fluid situation.”)
None of this, in other words, was a surprise, not even the shortage of security screeners and customs officers that plagued the system early in the boom. Neil Parry, vice-president of service delivery at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), told a parliamentary committee in June that his agency engages with the airlines “daily and weekly” to forecast passenger loads and set staffing numbers. The airlines knew what CATSA had, in other words, and CATSA knew what the airlines were bringing in.
So what happened? How did no one see this coming? Or, alternately, if they did, why didn’t anyone pull the plug? Why did no one in the system say, we can’t possibly handle all these flights without something going seriously wrong?
The answer to that question is complicated, disputed and very Canadian. The truth is there was no one body in charge of making sure Pearson, the most important transport hub in a nation driven by global trade and immigration, could reopen effectively after such an unprecedented shutdown. And in the absence of that kind of leadership, and in the best traditions of Canadian federalism, what happened was no one took responsibility, and now everyone is blaming someone else.
“There is no single culprit,” said David Gillen, director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Pearson to some degree is a culprit. The federal government is certainly a culprit, and the airlines are culprits as well, particularly the dominant carriers, and that’s Air Canada at Pearson.”
That’s not to suggest that any of this was easy, or unique to this country. CATSA’s Parry pointed out in his testimony to the Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee that the industry underwent at least two false restarts during COVID, first when the Delta wave hit in force in the fall of 2021 and then when Omicron tore through the country beginning that winter.
“What happened was Omicron came in and scared the hell out of everybody,” said Gradek, the former Air Canada executive. “And (everybody) was saying, ‘We have no idea when this is going to end. So we’re not going to forecast any increase in growth for summer 2022.’ ”
Canadian airlines weren’t the only ones saying that. The International Air Transport Association predicted in March that international travel wouldn’t fully recover until 2025. But then, as fast as Omicron hit, it faded, and the industry roared back.
The main problem at that point was timing. Typically airlines publish their summer schedules the previous fall. They’ll make small tweaks as the year goes on, often adding or dropping a few routes in a March update. That gives everyone in the system eight months to plan for a boom. But this year, because no one had any idea what the summer would look like in October, the airlines held back, and then when demand returned in late winter, they opened the flood gates.
“The airlines basically went all out and said, ‘Oh wow, here we go,’ ” Gradek said. “They greased up the schedule … They haven’t got the people. But they’re flying because they know the opportunity is there.”
Air Canada did publish a summer schedule in October. But in late February it announced a series of large increases to its slate. The airline brought back 41 suspended North American routes and added seven entirely new ones. It relaunched transcontinental flights to 34 destinations and restored direct service on a host of tourist routes, to places like Barcelona, Copenhagen and Milan, that had been shuttered since March of 2020.
It’s easy to understand why. Demand was there and they needed the cash. But adding all that summer traffic that late in the year was always going to be risky. It meant the airport, and the airline itself, only had a few months, or in the case of some routes, a few weeks, to fully staff up.
Air Canada said it “prudently” set its summer 2022 capacity at 80 per cent of its 2019 schedule and that schedule details are “always shared with the other parties in the air transportation ecosystem.”
In Gradek’s mind, though, the summer was always going to be a disaster. “Everybody kind of stuck their heads in the sand,” he said. “And the end result will be passengers getting whipsawed, left, right and centre.”
The problems that dog Pearson, the ones chronicled as much on TikTok as the nightly news — with endless shots of endless crowds and painful lines — haven’t just been about passengers, or at least not passenger volumes. In fact, there are still considerably fewer passengers going through Pearson today than there were before the pandemic struck.
There is another half to this story, a series of evolutions in the airline business that have combined to add considerable strain to some airport operations. You can see part of it yourself, next time you’re in an airport. Stand at any window in the departure lounge, wait for a plane to arrive and watch what happens as it unloads.
You’ll see cleaners, refuellers and baggage handlers. But if you watch closely, you might catch another team, too, operating a miniature conveyor belt, loading and unloading commercial cargo from the belly of the plane.
Most large airlines doubled down on the cargo business during the pandemic, taking advantage both of empty planes and growing demand for next-day product delivery. Air Canada was no exception. The company booked $398 million in cargo revenue during the first quarter of 2022, up 42 per cent from a year earlier. It also opened a new, 30,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled cargo facility at Pearson in March to handle pharmaceuticals, fresh food and other perishables.
But cargo doesn’t load or unload itself. It takes staff and time, and no one, Air Canada included, has enough of either of those right now.
Air Canada did not directly address questions about its cargo business in its statement. But it did say that “airport and airline industry operations have been impacted by resource issues at third-party service providers worldwide.”
Cargo is only one part of the airline evolution, though. During the pandemic, Air Canada also accelerated a route strategy that critics say puts more stress on the airport during peak hours. It’s called “sixth freedom” travel and it basically means luring more international customers by turning Pearson into a hub point for transcontinental flights.
“The hub strategy is, by design, very peaky,” said Gradek. “You have a whole bunch of inbound flights and then you have a whole bunch of outbound flights and they all happen within 75 or 90 minutes, and that’s a deliberate scheduling strategy on the part of Air Canada.”
Sixth freedom travel is a main reason Air Canada now flies to so many second-tier American markets, like Raleigh, Denver and St. Louis. The goal is not exclusively to serve Canadian travel demand. It’s to tempt American customers flying to Europe, Africa or the Middle East into going through Toronto on Air Canada, instead of flying direct from the U.S. on another carrier.
From a business point of view, it makes a lot of sense. Those are valuable flights that can help the airline add customers and increase its global reach. But for Pearson, sixth freedom travel is a challenge. It requires stuffing the airport at certain times of day, and it’s a big reason why Terminal One looks, at 4 a.m., like an inside shot of a clown car.
Think about it like this. To get an international traveller from, say, Charlotte, N.C., on a flight to London out of Toronto, you first have to get a plane from Toronto to Charlotte in the morning. You then have to get that plane back to Toronto on time for the Charlotte traveller to make their connection to the U.K.
To do all of that, you need to have a lot of U.S.-bound flights leaving Pearson at about the same time every morning. That’s why if you show up at Terminal One at 6 a.m. and look at the departure board, you’ll often see a list of destinations that looks something like this: Charlotte; Minneapolis; Hartford; New York-LGA; Newark; Nashville; Cincinnati.
Again, from a business perspective, that’s smart. It just means traffic into and out of Pearson is a lot less balanced than it otherwise might be. When I flew to Miami in early July on a 7 a.m. flight there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people waiting to go through security and U.S. customs when I arrived. When I went to Newark a few weeks earlier, at 2:20 p.m. there were exactly zero people waiting in the same area and all of two ahead of me inside.
(That’s not to say the Newark trip went smoothly. Air Canada cancelled my return flight and initially booked me on one that left Newark about 12 hours before I arrived.)
Connecting travel also increases the number of things that can go wrong on any trip. Rachael Bar-Hai, her husband and their three-month-old baby were supposed to fly from Tel Aviv to Atlanta through Toronto on June 25 and 26. They were originally scheduled to have a three-hour layover in Toronto. It ended up being more like 18.
When they landed, their bags were stuck on the plane. There was no one to unload them. Until their bags came off, they couldn’t clear U.S. customs. Because they couldn’t clear U.S. customs (which actually closed before their bags came off), they missed their connecting flight.
They then had to wait in line with hundreds of others (and a screaming, exhausted infant) for Air Canada to rebook their flights for the next day and another line (again, hundreds of people deep) to get a hotel voucher, which it turned out they couldn’t get because it was Pride and there wasn’t a hotel to be had.
So Bar-Hai and her family, instead of sleeping in Atlanta, as scheduled, slept in shifts in the Pearson departure lounge. “It was so disheartening,” she said. “I felt like I was failing my baby.”
A spokesperson for the GTAA said Pearson’s infrastructure “can easily accommodate the current level of hub traffic.” Air Canada did not directly address its sixth freedom. But the airline did say it has recently changed a “limited” number of international departure times “to reduce flying at peak times and even out the customer flow.”
For the past several months, Pearson has been a huge story, not just in Toronto, but increasingly around the world. (“Turbulence on the ground at Toronto’s Pearson Airport,” read a recent headline in the New York Times.) And if you followed all that news, if you read the statements from the airlines and the airport, if you listened to the most popular talking heads and the opposition critics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that story was mostly about COVID rules.
But a funny thing happened while I was reporting this story: The one thing I almost never heard about was COVID rules. Not one passenger I spoke to, and there were many, brought up mandates, apps or testing, unless I did first. “I had no problems,” said Rebecca Stephen. “Nobody asked me for any of that.”
That’s not to say vaccine passports, the ArriveCan App and other COVID measures didn’t at times add to the congestion at Pearson. Clearly they did. But just as clearly, they’ve never been the only factor and they certainly haven’t played the kind of outsized role in the crisis the public chatter and political debate might have lead you to believe.
For Gradek, who, again, used to work at Air Canada, that’s not an accident. He believes the airlines and the airports deliberately crafted a PR strategy to shift blame from their own decisions and onto the federal government. “They’re basically bullying the easiest targets they have to say, ‘Oh, it’s not our fault,’ ” he said. “There’s a lot of noise that we’ve heard … saying the problem is all the mandates. The problem is vaccination passports. The problem is … The problem is … And it’s never the airline’s fault. And it’s never the airport’s problem.”
Gradek isn’t the only one who thinks that way. “Right now is that there’s a narrative being put forward by employers and the airports that is really saying ‘the delays aren’t our fault. The delays are a product of unmanageable restrictions that were put in place by (the government during) COVID,’ ” said Tufts. “That’s not an untrue narrative. There’s never complete false narratives. But it’s much more complex than that.”
Neither Air Canada nor the GTAA directly addressed questions about their messaging or PR strategies. “Global aviation is a complex ecosystem made up of many independent entities, including government agencies responsible for security screening, customs, air traffic control, etc., and other entities including airport authorities, catering firms, fuelling companies, among others,” Air Canada said in its statement. “All of these bodies must work well together for the entire system to function properly.”
There are some signs that things are getting better at Pearson. By 4:30 a.m. on that Saturday in July in Terminal One, the one where the line looked like a lower intestine, Air Canada staff had appeared, led by a bull-necked man with a bullhorn, to shepherd the crowds through security, one departing plane at a time. When I came back, four days later, the terminal was crowded; they even held us on the plane for about 25 minutes. But once inside, we moved through the customs hall with more speed than I’ve seen in more than 10 years of regular flights through Pearson.
But not all those improvements have made much of a difference on the ground. On July 18, just one out of every four international flights left Pearson on time, according to Cirium data. That number was bad, even for the current crisis. But it wasn’t a real outlier. The last time more than 40 per cent of international flights left Pearson as scheduled was June 15.
The cancellations, too, have continued. In late June, Air Canada announced it was cutting about 15 per cent of its summer schedule, or more than 9,500 flights. But many passengers and advocates say that decision came far too late. They believe, and some industry experts and insiders agree, that the airline should never have booked those routes, and many others, in the first place — or alternately, that either the GTAA or the federal government should have stopped them when they tried.
(When I asked the GTAA whether airlines should have been forced to pre-emptively cancel flights, the agency told me that, at that time, the industry was focused on “removing health measures and ensuring government staffing.” A spokesperson for federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra did not respond to the same question before the Star’s deadline.)
As for the passengers themselves, many I spoke to are left wondering whether anyone or any organization is going to pay for everything that happened to them this year. Gabor Lukacs, a long-time passenger rights activist, isn’t holding his breath.
“If you damage one person, clearly the court system will deal with you. Ten people: maybe they will,” he said. “If you do it to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, you’re either considered too big to fail or just an honourable businessman in Canada. And that’s where the problem lies.”
Clarification — July 22, 2022: This story was changed to clarify that in March 2020 Pearson airport was not completely shut down and not all of the workers at the airport work for the GTAA.
Richard Warnica is a Toronto-based business feature writer for the Star. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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