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People wait in line to check in at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on May 12, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Air Canada AC-T cancelled more than 350 flights at Toronto Pearson in the first seven days of June – almost 10 per cent of its schedule – as staffing shortages and a surge in passengers continue to beleaguer Canada’s busiest airport.

WestJet and Air Transat TRZ-T have also seen delays and cancellations at Pearson as a rebound in demand for air travel has overwhelmed government agencies that conduct security, customs and immigration checks at the facility and other major Canadian airports. Those in Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver have experienced bottlenecks but not to the extent of Pearson.

The aviation industry says its reduced work force is unable to manage the increase in passengers while still enforcing COVID-19 rules. Vaccine mandates for employees of federal agencies and airlines have also reduced staff numbers, the industry says, as some employees refused to be vaccinated.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said the airline’s overall completion rate remains high but staffing problems at the government agencies have affected operations. “In some cases, longer security and customs processing times at airports and recurring air-traffic-control limitations imposed on aircraft movements, at Pearson in particular, have forced airlines to cancel flights,” he said.

Passengers have complained of being held on parked planes before being allowed to disembark for customs clearance, as well as long waits to have their baggage and pockets checked before boarding.

The Air Canada cancellations were split between arrivals and departures, according to aviation data company Cirium.

WestJet Airlines cancelled 3 per cent, or about 16, of its arriving flights at Pearson from June 1 to 7, Cirium said. Ten departing flights were also cancelled.

“We remain extremely concerned with the state of services provided by government agencies at our air borders and security screening points,” said Madison Kruger, a WestJet spokeswoman, who declined to confirm Cirium’s numbers.

The health checks administered at customs kiosks have increased passenger processing times to about two minutes each from 30 seconds. That adds up to long waits and delayed planes and can cut into crews’ rest times, making them unavailable for work.

Annick Guérard, the chief executive officer of Transat AT Inc., which owns Air Transat, said COVID-19 protocols at airports are incompatible with the higher volumes of passengers expected within a month.

“We’ve had delays at Pearson and other places,” Ms. Guérard said Thursday. “There are challenges in Europe as well.”

With the summer travel season approaching, Monette Pasher, the head of the Canadian Airports Council, said the government should alleviate the bottlenecks by dropping the health checks and rules put in place to contain the pandemic. These include vaccine requirements for passengers and employees and random tests for travellers, all of which take time to process and administer.

“We want to make sure the problem doesn’t get worse,” Ms. Pasher said from Halifax. “It really slows down the system.”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters Wednesday that the government has taken steps to alleviate the bottlenecks, including adding 400 security screening agents. He hinted that more steps will be taken but declined to elaborate.

Mr. Alghabra pointed to the regular meetings of a stakeholder group representing airlines, airports, public health, security and customs agencies. “We are, of course discussing bottlenecks,” he said. “We’ve made some adjustments. More adjustments are taking place.”

On June 6, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority screened more than 131,000 passengers at Canada’s eight largest airports, compared with 162,000 on the same day in 2019 and 17,000 a year ago.

The Crown corporation contracts out the work to three private companies, which laid off employees during the pandemic and are having trouble replacing them. The Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which provides preclearance at some airports for U.S.-bound travellers, are facing similar problems.

With the pandemic easing, the number of travellers is expected to rise by July, putting more strain on airport systems and frustrating passengers, Ms. Pasher said.

More than 490,000 passengers on 2,700 flights landing at Pearson in May were held on planes to reduce overcrowding and long lineups inside the terminals. “Travellers are being further delayed because of the time it takes to select passengers for random testing,” the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, the airport’s operator, said Thursday in a statement.

“We’re thankful for the steps that the federal government has taken and their recognition that more needs to be done,” said Deborah Flint, the chief executive officer of the GTAA.

“This is about much more than Toronto Pearson. It’s about global perceptions of our country and the risk that Canada will lose billions of dollars from tourism and business activities if travellers decide that coming to Canada this summer simply isn’t worth the hassle,” she said.

The lineups, delays and cancellations have also plagued airports in London and Amsterdam’s Schiphol. Dutch airline KLM has cancelled dozens of flights at Schiphol to reduce the congestion, which has been blamed on airport management.

Less than a two-hour drive from Toronto, Buffalo Niagara International Airport has long been an alternative to Pearson. The Western New York hub has seen a steep rise in Canadian travellers since April, said Pascal Cohen, its senior manager of aviation business development, although it is impossible to say why.

“Is it because of congestion at Pearson, or is it because Canadians don’t need to take a COVID test any more to return to Canada?” Mr. Cohen said.

About 33 per cent of travellers starting their trips at Buffalo airport in June were Canadian, according to terminal surveys, compared with 25 per cent in June, 2019, before the pandemic halted most air travel, Mr. Cohen said. For all of 2019, 38 per cent of the airport’s originating travellers were Canadian.

Even before the Pearson congestion problems, Buffalo airport marketed itself to Canadians as a hub with shorter lineups and lower fees and fares. There are no vaccine, mask or quarantine requirements for air travel within the United States. Nor do passengers flying within the U.S. face customs screening.

“We talk about two things: save time, save money,” Mr. Cohen said.

In the U.K., British Airways, EasyJet, Wizz Air and other carriers have cancelled hundreds of flights at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has scolded the airlines for selling tickets that they can’t honour.

John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow, said this week that travellers could face another 18 months of chaos before the aviation industry is able to hire enough people.

With a report from Marieke Walsh

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