Air Canada AC-T delayed or cancelled nearly 2,000 flights over the Canada Day long weekend in a potential taste of more trouble ahead for passengers.
Roughly half of all trips by the country’s biggest airline – including its lower-cost Air Canada Rouge and regional partner Jazz Aviation – were disrupted Saturday through Monday, according to figures from tracking service FlightAware.
The 1,965 flight delays and cancellations – over 52 per cent of scheduled flights – stand in contrast to numbers from other Canadian carriers including WestJet, Air Transat and Flair Airlines, which registered lower flight disruption levels.
They also mark an uptick from the previous weekend, despite an unexpected shortage of air traffic controllers at Nav Canada that snarled travel during that period.
Posts and photos of snaking lines and bulging terminals at airports in Toronto and Montreal popped up on social media over the past few days, as passengers vented their frustrations about late takeoffs and customer service in a throwback to scenes of post-pandemic airport chaos a year ago.
Air Canada pointed out that the air travel sector is now in the throes of its summer peak, with 140,000-plus customers boarding the airline’s planes daily.
“Our top priority is to ensure everyone travels safely, even if it requires extra time,” spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an e-mail.
Nonetheless, disruption figures have been trending upward over the past few weeks, said John Gradek, who teaches at McGill University’s aviation management program. Crowded flight schedules and crew shortages play a role in peak season, he said, since it’s harder to find a spare plane or pilot to help fill a gap when each aircraft is flying more.
“There’s a lot of people flying, planes are full, and there’s very little operational reliability or operational backup,” Mr. Gradek said.
“If an airplane craps out, for whatever reason – mechanical things do happen – you’ve got to fix the airplane before you go. So you automatically take these monstrous delays or you cancel.”
Air Canada is juggling a more “tightly wound” schedule after the industry-wide revenue collapse prompted by COVID-19 travel restrictions, Mr. Gradek added, with the company operating at roughly 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic flight capacity.
The carrier echoed that message, pointing out that it may take longer to recover from a wrench in the gears when any system runs at full tilt.
“For example, when thunderstorms halt our operation, as we saw over the recent weekend in the U.S. northeast, we may require more time than scheduled to get aircraft into position for their next flights,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
He added that Air Canada is fully staffed, with more employees than in the summer of 2019, despite running fewer flights.
Savanthi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James, said in a May 17 note to investors that flight demand is “still recovering … particularly in long-haul international and commercial” travel – areas that Air Canada especially has depended on. In that kind of environment, it makes sense to rely on tight-packed schedules and fewer planes.
On Monday, Air Canada, Rouge and Jazz flights notched on-time numbers of between 50 per cent and 54 per cent across the country, according to FlightAware, though the number was lower at Toronto’s Pearson airport. In contrast, WestJet hit 77 per cent countrywide and 72 per cent from Pearson.
Several other reasons explain the difference between Air Canada and its smaller competitors.
Air Canada has many more international flights, which means that problems across the border or the ocean ripple more strongly toward its gates.
United Airlines, a codeshare partner, saw the highest percentage of flight disruptions of any major U.S. carrier over the past week, causing problems for Air Canada as well.
The storms from recent days struck Central Canada and the U.S. northeast, affecting Air Canada more than rival WestJet, which sticks more to western skies.
Meanwhile, Nav Canada said there were no delays linked to the country’s air navigation service at the Pearson or Trudeau airports over the weekend, unlike the one before.
“As for the recent delays experienced at Toronto Pearson and Trudeau airports, we can confirm that they were primarily due to thunderstorms,” spokeswoman Maryam Amini said in an e-mail.
Weather, runway construction and other infrastructure work are “by far the most frequent source of delays, with many parties involved,” from contractors to security and baggage handling agencies, she added.