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Travellers wait in line at a Sunwing Airlines check-in desk at Trudeau Airport in Montreal, on April 20.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Delays at some Canadian airports have forced flight crews to work without pay while planes are held at gates, unions representing flight attendants and pilots say.

A rebound in air travel and shortages of staff at customs and security checkpoints mean passengers face long waits to board, take off and disembark – especially at Toronto Pearson.

Most flight crews are paid only when the plane is in motion, a quirk in their contracts that means they are performing their jobs without compensation while at the terminal gate. Additionally, airlines count the unpaid time that begins when the plane arrives at the gate as part of the rest time toward crews’ next flight, creating possible safety and fatigue problems, said Wesley Lesosky, a president with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who represents 15,000 flight attendants at nine airlines.

“What we’re seeing every day – and it’s only getting worse – is the planes land and then you’re not permitted to allow people off the plane until [Canada Customs] is free to receive you,” Mr. Lesosky said from Port Moody, B.C. “So then the flight attendants are left on the plane with the passengers waiting to be told, ‘Okay, you can let people off.’”

Barret Armann, a pilot and Unifor union president who represents 410 pilots at Sunwing Airlines, said employers have warned pilots they could be fired if they don’t stay on the plane until the last passenger leaves. This can take about two hours at Pearson, he said.

“The flight checks, all of the flight plans that we put in, all of the weather checks, the weight and balance, everything really for the safety of the flight, we do for free. And then when the airplane pushes back [leaves the gate], we start getting paid,” Mr. Armann said in an interview. “And when the airplane arrives at the gate, we stopped getting paid.”

Mr. Lesosky said flight attendants have been subjected to verbal abuse from impatient passengers.

“When you land at 6:03, you’re planning, ‘Okay, at 6:30 I’ll be in the cab, at seven o’clock, I’ll be home,” he said. “When you’re still on the plane at 10 and nobody is giving you any answer as to what’s going on, you’re fit to be tied. We all are. It can definitely get tense. We’ve definitely heard of cases of people being screamed at.”

Both union leaders said they have taken steps with their airlines to ensure people are paid for their work. Sunwing did not respond to an e-mail.

Airlines and airport operators say the government agencies that screen passengers are understaffed and were unprepared for the surge in travellers in recent months. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), The Canada Border Services Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada and U.S. Customs laid off workers at the start of the pandemic, and have been slow to rehire, leading to delays in passenger checks. These measures currently include health checks, filling out the ArriveCan app, random COVID-19 tests and proof of vaccination.

All these layers add to the time it takes to get through a queue. The tourism industry warns the lineups will get worse in the summer.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Toronto Pearson, has called for the government to drop some health checks to streamline arrivals and departures.

Transport Canada Minister Omar Alghabra met with the head of CATSA, Michael Saunders, to ensure the agency is implementing a plan to hire staff and end the delays, government spokeswoman Laurel Lennox said. “We understand Canadians may be frustrated by this situation, and ask that they remain patient as we work hard with our partners to resolve this issue,” Ms. Lennox said.

Christopher Bloore, head of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, said the delays at Toronto Pearson are holding back the recovery in tourism across Canada. “Toronto Pearson is the gateway for international travellers visiting Toronto and continuing to other Canadian destinations. The current travel experience will have detrimental and lasting impacts on how Toronto and Canada are viewed on the international stage,” Mr. Bloore said.

Mr. Alghabra on Wednesday said understaffed government agencies are not the only reason for the delays. Travellers who are unaccustomed to preparing their luggage for security checks and variable flight schedules are also contributing, he told reporters.

Mr. Armann scoffed at this. “I can assure you they’re not rusty travellers,” Mr. Armann said. “There is a significant issue at the airport. It’s got nothing to do with rust.”

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