The aviation industry’s bid to return to the skies is being weighed down by an earthly problem: not enough workers.
Canada’s airlines are restoring routes to meet pent-up demand from customers who have not flown during the pandemic. But a resurgence in vacations and visits to families and friends has collided with a shortage of people to load luggage and conduct customs and security checks. That, along with lingering pandemic health measures, is adding to the amount of time it takes passengers to make it from terminal to tarmac, or vice versa.
Laura Tilley, of London, Ont., travelled to Toronto’s Pearson Airport from Punta Cana on May 2 with Air Canada. Once she and her family landed, she said, they waited on their plane for four hours before they were allowed to disembark.
“The captain told us there were nine planes ahead of us waiting to get off,” said Ms. Tilley, 24. “I could tell the cabin crew was just as upset. It was frustrating to be on the tarmac for as long as we were in the air.”
When she finally got inside the terminal, she found its customs and baggage claim areas were backed up with long, disorganized lines of passengers. “People were so frustrated from sitting on the planes they were just cutting lines,” Ms. Tilley said.
As passengers line up, the companies, contactors and government agencies responsible for airport operations have been blaming one another for the problem.
The operators of some of Canada’s busiest airports say government agencies are at fault for the long lineups, because those agencies are responsible for understaffing at customs and security checkpoints. The agencies, in turn, say the private contractors they rely on to staff those jobs were not prepared for the surge in passengers.
And the contractors say they are trying to hire more people, but are having a hard time doing so because the job market is tight. Canada’s unemployment rate fell to 5.2 per cent in April, the lowest rate since 1976.
Numbers provided by the federal government illustrate the sharp rebound in air travel. On May 1, security employees screened a total of 121,000 people at the country’s eight largest airports. On the same day a year ago, they checked just 15,000.
Although Air Canada continues to lose money, it expects to fly 90 per cent of its prepandemic schedule this summer.
In the first three months of 2022, the airline carried more than five million passengers. That’s about five times the number it flew in the first quarter of 2021. Air Canada kept most of its pilots on staff even when its planes were grounded during the pandemic, and it has been recalling flight attendants.
This has allowed it to avoid the flight crew shortages that have gripped many of the world’s airlines, said Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick. But he added that the airline needs to recruit more support personnel – the people who load luggage and prepare the planes.
Delays at any stage of the check-in or deplaning process can cascade. “By forcing us to hold aircraft at arrival gates longer than planned, they cannot be loaded and turned as quickly,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “Cleaners’ and caterers’ schedules can be thrown off, and crews can be delayed for their next flights.”
Jacques Roy, a logistics professor at HEC Montreal, said longer lineups, increased wait times and shortages of security screening staff are being caused by labour shortages, as well as the fee-based revenue models upon which privately managed airports rely.
Since 1996, most major airports in Canada have been run by not-for-profit companies that pay rent to the federal government and fund their operations with fees charged to airlines, passengers and supporting companies. It’s a business model that failed when the flow of passengers stopped.
“These revenues are important because if airports only rely on the landing fees they get from airlines, this is not sufficient to upgrade their facilities and improve services,” Prof. Roy said.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Toronto Pearson airport, has said the government should drop some of its pandemic health measures to streamline arrivals and departures procedures and alleviate lineups. Those measures include health questions at check-in, and random COVID-19 tests for people who arrive from outside Canada.
“While prepandemic it took an officer on average 30 seconds to process an international arriving passenger, today the process can take two to four times longer,” said Ryan White, a spokesperson for the GTAA. “With an average of over 30,000 international passengers arriving per day right now – estimated to reach 45,000 per day by the summer – every second counts and has an impact on passenger flow.”
Allied Universal Security Services, which provides passenger screening services for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) in British Columbia and Yukon, said travellers are returning but workers are not.
The company had 1,000 agents working for CATSA before the pandemic. It is now looking to add 300, but only has around 100 in training, according to Sherita Coffelt, an Allied spokesperson.
Barry Prentice, a transportation professor at the University of Manitoba, said Canada’s airport check-in and security processes are overdue for streamlining. Pandemic-related health checks are in addition to screening measures put in place after the 9/11 terror attacks, which had already made the procedures slower and more costly.
“It’s about time we changed the way we do things,” he said. “To be checking everybody like they are a hostile alien every time they go through is ridiculous.”
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