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Toronto Pearson International Airport and Vancouver International Airport both experienced upheaval this weekend as the peak travel season begins.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Staffing shortages at Canada’s air traffic control agency caused hundreds of weekend flights to be cancelled at the country’s two biggest airports.

Toronto Pearson International Airport had a total of 446 departing flights delayed and 73 cancelled on Saturday and Sunday, according to, while Vancouver International Airport had 204 delays and 15 cancellations. Both airports pointed the finger at Nav Canada, the country’s air-traffic controller, as the peak travel season begins.

Nav Canada spokesperson Maryam Amini said “unplanned absences” of air-traffic controllers caused the delays, and the agency is working to bolster its work force. “Having enough people to deliver safe and efficient air navigation services is a top priority for Nav Canada,” she said. “Our front-line air traffic services training programs are currently being run at full capacity.”

The delays cascaded throughout the network, although it is not known how many stemmed from Vancouver or Toronto.

Montreal Trudeau International Airport had several flights delayed, which spokesperson Nadia Benelfellah said were owing to bad weather on the East Coast – not Nav Canada constraints. At Calgary International Airport, 23 per cent of departing flights were delayed on Saturday.

“Nav Canada has instituted a ground delay program at YYZ today,” Pearson said in a tweet on Saturday. Vancouver blamed “constraints within the Nav Canada air navigation system” for the delays and cancellations.

Spokespeople for Toronto and Vancouver airports referred requests for details to Nav Canada.

The pandemic caused layoffs across most of the global aviation sector. But unlike some positions, including baggage handlers, air-traffic controllers cannot be quickly hired or replaced. It takes about two years to become trained as a Nav Canada air-traffic controller, and the program’s failure rate is about 60 per cent.

Nav Canada stopped hiring trainees during the pandemic, and dismissed some already in training, said Nick von Schoenberg, president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, the union that represents about 1,850 controllers. “We’re going to be paying the price here for the next year or two,” he said by phone.

Mr. von Schoenberg said the employer is trying to add to its work force but cannot do so overnight, and is about 250 or 300 people short. This means if an air-traffic controller is sick, or cannot work overtime, disruptions can occur. The work is highly regulated for safety reasons. Controllers must be “fit for duty” and cannot exceed a 48-hour work week averaged over 56 days, he said.

Nav Canada’s Ms. Amini said there are more than 400 employees in training, and another 600 will enter the program over the next two years. “It is a company-wide priority to make every effort to support the anticipated increased traffic during busy travel seasons and we are committed to working with our employees and unions on this front,” she said.

The shortage of air-traffic controllers is not unique to Canada. Regulators in Europe, Britain and the U.S. are also grappling with the problem.

Monette Pasher, head of the Canadian Airports Council, said the pandemic-related shortages in skilled positions persists, and this will be evident on some of the summer’s busiest travel days.

“This is an interconnected system and labour shortages for highly skilled positions are still recovering,” Ms. Pasher said. “During the pandemic this industry lost a pipeline of air-traffic controllers and pilots and it will take time to rebuild and retrain these work forces.” She warned peak travel days could be beset by problems “from time to time” because of various strains on the system.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said some weekend flights in Canada and the U.S. were disrupted because of air-traffic restrictions, while others were owing to weather in Florida and the U.S. Northeast. “With the industry now in its summer peak, any disruptions can cascade throughout the entire system and affect all industry participants,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

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