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Deborah Flint, president and chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, by the arrivals area at Toronto Pearson International Airport on March 19, 2020.

Fred Lum

Twenty minutes into a conversation on what it’s like to run Canada’s busiest airport during a global pandemic, Deborah Flint pauses to ask: “Can you hear that?”

Across the phone line – face-to-face interviews are discouraged these days – comes the unmistakable roar of revving jet engines. The newly minted president and chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), which runs Pearson International Airport, says: “That’s a Fed Ex plane, taking off for Nashville. That sound says we’re still in business.”

The thunder of a plane taking off used to be mere background noise at Canada’s busiest airport, which sees 50 million passengers pass through each year. Not anymore. Terminals that are typically packed with business travellers and families bound for March Break holidays are now nearly deserted. Half the Starbucks and Tim Hortons outlets are shut down.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ms. Flint – who says she fell in love with airports as a child, when she travelled frequently with her parents – landed at the GTAA just six weeks ago, lured away from the top job at Los Angeles World Airports, which runs L.A.’s two busiest hubs. The Hamilton, Ont.-born executive, aged 52, started her tenure quietly, by embarking on a “listening tour” with the GTAA’s 1,700 employees, plus airline executives, government agencies, restaurant and bar owners, and other stakeholders who keep this place running.

Once she got the lay of the land, the new boss intended to write a five-year strategic plan for the non-profit corporation that included better connecting Toronto’s airport to the rest of Canada through improved rail and road infrastructure. Ms. Flint’s goal was to vault Pearson into the ranks of North American mega-hubs, welcoming up to 85 million passengers annually by 2035 – on par with the amount of traffic she helped draw after a US$14-billion renovation of L.A’s international airport. And at some point, she was hoping to find a few minutes to buy a winter coat, something she never needed in California.

Then COVID-19 changed everything.

Today, her office at Pearson is empty – she’d headed to the airport for sessions with front-line workers about new screening standards, imposed by the federal government, which include turning away passengers with flu-like symptoms. But the rest of her team is working from home. (The GTAA handed out 92 laptops to employees who needed them and updated software on another 820 employees’ home computers so they could work remotely.) Reflecting on a week when the aviation industry was forced to come to grips with a global pandemic, she starts by comparing the unprecedented logistical challenges the sector faces to the lessons learned after the 9/11 attacks, which played out when Ms. Flint was head of operations at the airport in Oakland, Calif.

“This industry is good at dealing with the unanticipated – we’re nimble,” says Ms. Flint. “This isn’t easy. Our people are doing incredible work under pressure. But I know we will emerge a stronger organization. We will emerge doing things differently and doing things better.”

While it’s popular to say there’s no playbook for dealing with COVID-19, there actually is one – and Ms. Flint has it sitting on her desk. Just four months ago, the GTAA updated its pandemic response plan, with airport executives running what they call a “tabletop” exercise, simulating their responses to an out-of-control infectious disease around a boardroom table. Infected baggage handlers or sick pilots? There’s a plan for that.

The result of that session was version 4.0 of Pearson’s pandemic playbook, with an executive summary from Ms. Flint that runs 25 pages. When China shut down airports earlier this year, she says "we pulled our plan right off the shelf and got to work.”

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But each day last week brought Ms. Flint a fresh crisis that threatened to put Pearson out of business.

On the weekend, she was interrupted during a staff meeting by a call from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). One of its officers at Pearson had tested positive for COVID-19, the first member of the airport’s 50,000-member extended family of employees to be diagnosed with the virus.

This contingency was accounted for in the playbook, which provided a script of what the GTAA needed to know: who did the person come into contact with, where did they work, and where else did they go at Pearson? They immediately go to work with their counterparts at CBSA, whose contact information they’d carefully logged before the crisis took hold. “Think of it as triage – we had a process in place to make decisions quickly,” says Ms. Flint, adding that a central lesson in crisis management is: “We cannot make decisions based on speculation; it is essential we get facts.”

There was nothing in the playbook on creating social distance, however, and on Sunday, the GTAA executive team realized it needed to rework the airport’s security and boarding protocols. Passengers are typically packed together like so many sardines as they move through choke points like security screening and baggage. To space them out, GTAA employees started ripping out barriers and putting in new temporary pedestrian walkways overnight on Sunday and into Monday morning, creating additional space. The GTAA also began closely monitoring lines at immigration desks in the arrivals area and holding newly landed aircraft at de-icing stations and gates to slow the flow of incoming traffic. “We re-imagined how passengers will queue up as they move through the terminals,” says Ms. Flint.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau closed the border to international travellers, leaving thousands of Canadians around the world stranded. At the same time as helping carriers deal with that logistical nightmare, Ms. Flint began to co-ordinate the shut-down of 93 restaurants and bars within the airport, striking a balancing between minimizing the spread of the virus and the need to provide travellers with coffee, a meal or a stiff preflight drink. By the end of the week, as passenger volumes continued to drop, only half of Pearson’s restaurants remained open.

Through it all, Ms. Flint stayed in touch via phone with long-time contacts, speaking frequently to Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu, and talked to new associates at all levels of government, in health care and at the dozens of business that operate at Pearson. She also turned occasionally to former colleagues in L.A. and Oakland, calling to comparing notes on how to cope. “The aviation community is a close-knit family,” she says.

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She also had to oversee operations on the home front, checking in on her aging aunt in Hamilton and reminding her teenaged daughter to stay focused on online homework. In the middle of everything, she was able to breathe a sigh of relief when her son, who is in university, returned home from a spring break trip to Hawaii.

Wednesday brought a new crisis, however: As Air Canada, Westjet, Air Transat and charter operators began shutting down routes, they needed somewhere to park their idled jets – ideally close to the carriers’ maintenance teams, so they could service the planes. Ms. Flint says her team created room for about 70 aircraft, in part by temporarily closing passenger gates at terminals and moving jets into those slots. On Thursday night alone, Air Canada moved three more jets into Pearson’s aircraft parking lot.

By week’s end, Ms. Flint also began calling airlines and government health officials to offer up the GTAA’s services as part of a high-speed courier service for drugs and medical equipment, which generally move around the country on trucks and trains. Pearson handles 45 per cent of Canada’s air cargo; its service docks can handle 240 delivery trucks at a time. As the number of passenger flights – which typically carry cargo in their holds – continues to decline, Ms. Flint says GTAA crews are preparing to fill any gaps in cargo capacity by welcoming more freight aircraft to the airport.

Looking ahead, she says it’s clear her bold new strategic plan – now on hold – will need to acknowledge the challenges a pandemic poses to businesses with global links. That’s an approach she welcomes, reaching back again to what played out in September, 2001 – a touchstone moment for the aviation industry. “One thing to recall is that after 9/11, there were no further attacks. We adapted successfully,” says Ms. Flint. “What stands out is what can be accomplished when people are committed and resilient and work together.”

Editor’s note: (March 23, 2020): This article has been updated to correct the year for 9/11.
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