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Passengers look for their luggage in Toronto's Pearson airport on June 29.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Air Canada’s AC-T move to cancel more than 9,000 summer flights came after its on-time performance deteriorated compared to other airlines at Toronto Pearson Airport.

On Wednesday, Air Canada said it is slashing its summer schedule to reduce the number of people moving through airports that are facing a shortage of workers who handle baggage and screen passengers.

Air Canada and other airlines had planned to fly about 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic schedules in July and August, a period in which the sector makes much of its profit, in an attempt to emerge from the deep financial losses of the pandemic shutdown. Companies are trying to capitalize on pent-up demand for travel ahead of the fall, when some fear a resurgent variant of COVID-19 could emerge and spur governments to reimpose restrictions and health measures that have reduced demand for travel.

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Officials at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, operator of Pearson Airport, initiated meetings with their counterparts at Air Canada and other airlines and asked them to review their summer schedules to look at voluntary reductions, according to one industry source. The meetings were attempts to spur changes that would reduce the long lineups, rows of baggage and flight delays that have marred the restart of air travel at Pearson and airports around the world.

In turn, the airlines were assured they would not lose their slots or rights to land at specific times when normal operations resume, according to a second source familiar with the matter. The Globe and Mail is not naming the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Most of Air Canada’s flight reductions are in Toronto and Montreal, where a shortage of employees at airlines and government security and customs agencies has been blamed for long lineups and delayed flights. But as COVID-19 health measures have been dropped, and the government agencies have restored staffing levels, Air Canada’s lagging performance at Pearson has stood out.

Between April and June, Air Canada aircraft’s on-time performance deteriorated sharply at Pearson compared with other airlines sharing Terminal 1, according to GTAA data. In April, 60 per cent of Air Canada flights arrived on time, compared with 54 per cent of all other airlines at the same terminal. By June, when passenger volumes were rising, 33 per cent of Air Canada’s planes arrived on schedule, compared with 46 per cent of all other carriers at the same terminal, including United Airlines and Lufthansa.

For departures, Air Canada’s on-time performance was 30 per cent in June, compared with 61 per cent for other carriers at Pearson Terminal 1.

Year to date, an average of 43 per cent of Air Canada’s planes landing at Pearson had to wait because there was no Air Canada crew to guide them to the gate. This compares with 28 per cent of all other airlines across the airport. In 2019, these numbers were 18 per cent and 15.5 per cent, respectively.

Air Canada is the largest airline at Pearson and is most affected by problems there and at other airports to which it connects, said company spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

“Such disruptions can throw off our schedule and affect all aspects of our operation,” he said. “Most other carriers at Toronto Pearson, especially those operating at Terminal 1 who often only operate only one or two flights a day, have schedules that are much less complex and they can recover more quickly from issues.”

The cuts Air Canada announced include 154 daily one-way flights, or 10 per cent to 15 per cent of Air Canada’s schedule. Four routes are temporarily suspended.

“We welcome Air Canada’s decision to reduce its schedule to address pressures in the industry, in particular airline staffing challenges,” said Ryan White, a GTAA spokesman. “In making this announcement, Air Canada is following the example of other major airlines worldwide, who have also recognized the need to adjust schedules in light of the unprecedented challenges the industry is facing post-COVID.”

McGill University aviation lecturer John Gradek noted the cancelled flights are mostly unprofitable routes within Canada or into the United States, not the high-priced international routes that require more complicated customs processing and passenger and baggage handling or transfers. These are the flights that are beset by the longest lines and lengthiest delays, he said. “Maybe you are eliminating some congestion but in my opinion, the root cause – international services – has not been dealt with,” Mr. Gradek said.

Air Canada is sticking with its premium-priced transatlantic flights as part of its strategy to cater to U.S. travellers, he said. The airline flies U.S. customers from Chicago or other U.S. cities into Toronto or Montreal, where they are transferred to an overseas flight. Much of the delay in processing and transferring these people – and their luggage – is because they first have to go through Canada customs before boarding their next flight, even though their destination is elsewhere.

At other international hubs, including Doha and Istanbul, there is a waiting lounge for passengers who are transferring internationally. This allows them to skip the customs check-in because they are not staying in the country. “Unfortunately, Canadian airports aren’t built that way,” Mr. Gradek said.

Air Canada’s Mr. Fitzpatrick said, “We protected international flying because it is very important to customers and it is also harder to rebook customers as we always try to do when those flights are cancelled.”

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