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Toronto Pearson airport chief Deborah Flint says change is needed to passenger screening rules to address busy terminals and long lines.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Deborah Flint took charge of Canada’s busiest airport in early 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world reeling and left the aviation industry struggling to survive.

More than two years later, she finds herself leading Toronto Pearson through a new crisis: clogged airport terminals and passengers held on parked planes amid a shortage of government contractors who conduct security, customs and COVID-19 checks on travellers. Similar logjams are happening in Vancouver and Montreal, but the problem is most acute at Toronto Pearson.

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The delays have frustrated passengers returning to the skies for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, hindered airlines’ abilities to recover lost revenue and damaged Canada’s reputation in the global travel industry.

With the busy summer season near, the need to solve the problem is urgent and the Canadian government needs to take action, Ms. Flint says. “We need decisions and we need execution in order to make this happen,” she said in an interview.

She is calling on the government to streamline the movement of people through the terminals by dropping some of the checks for COVID-19, expanding the powers of the ArriveCan travel app to eliminate lineups at kiosks, using biometrics to identify and expedite check-ins for trusted travellers, and using new technology to scan luggage without requiring the removal of laptops and other electronics.

As the busy summer travel season nears and the volume of passengers rises by 50 per cent, there is little time to fix the problem, Ms. Flint said.

The head of the Crown corporation that hires three contractors to conduct security screening has apologized for the long wait times. Mike Saunders, chief executive officer of Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, urged travellers to have patience and arrive two to three hours early for their flights while staffing levels are increased.

He pointed to staffing shortages at the three companies that do the work on behalf of the government at 89 airports: Allied Universal in British Columbia; Garda World in the Prairies, Ontario and Northwest Territories; and Securitas Transport in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Nunavut.

Before the pandemic, about 7,400 people performed the work. Today, that number is 6,500, said Suzanne Perseo, a spokeswoman for CATSA.

Contactors are hiring another 1,000 security officers, supported by added training capacity from CATSA. However, a decades-low jobless rate makes it hard to hire. At Pearson, Garda is 50 employees short of its usual level of 2,100 people, and 300 of these are new recruits still in training.

Before the pandemic, passenger volumes were more staggered, Ms. Perseo said. But now, floods of passengers are arriving simultaneously. “At times, this can contribute to longer passenger wait times,” she said.

Understaffing at airlines, ground handling companies and U.S. customs preclearance stations has also hampered the rebound in travel.

The Canada Border Services Agency, responsible for customs screening, declined to discuss staffing levels. “What I can tell you is that the CBSA takes appropriate measures to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to adequately manage the border and allow for the ability to increase operational flexibility and respond to service demands as and when required,” said Patrick Mahaffy, a spokesman for the agency.

“When several flights converge and travellers accumulate, in some cases it can create a funnel effect leading into the pre-primary waiting area, which may cause lineups. Due to infrastructure and space limitations, travellers may have to be staged prior to entering the CBSA processing area,” Mr. Mahaffy said, adding the delays can increase when travellers need more time to complete their ArriveCan app, used to collect and report their travel information.

Laurel Lennox, a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said Transport Canada has formed a committee to find solutions to the long lineups, and noted the recent hiring of 400 screening agents.

“We are taking this problem seriously and continuing collaborative work with CATSA and all partners to create effective short and longer-term solutions to these issues,” Ms. Lennox said.

“The timing is of the essence on this,” Ms. Flint said. “We’ve got to get decisions and actually get to measures that are going to be implemented within the next few weeks because the summer traffic is set to increase and we have an incredible opportunity for tourists to come back into the country. They will be reticent to do that with the headlines.”

Ms. Flint, born in Hamilton to parents from Jamaica and Nigeria, travelled extensively growing up. Before taking the Pearson job, she ran Los Angeles International Airport for four years. Although she sees the ebbs and flows of people moving through the airport on her daily walks through the terminal halls, she counts on data to tell the story.

In the week ended May 22, 112,000 Pearson passengers were forced to wait on parked planes before they were allowed off – the delays due to bottlenecks in the terminals. That was an increase of 12,000 from the prior period, she said. International arrivals face an average wait of 30 minutes per plane – some as much as 75 minutes. “That’s purely unacceptable when we have opportunities to improve the system,” Ms. Flint said.

“I always say the airport is the front door and the curb appeal that reflects the capabilities and the ambitions of a country. So this is so important that we reflect the best of Canada, a modern, innovative, capable country that welcomes business, that welcomes travellers, that welcomes tourists, that welcomes immigrants.”

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