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Passengers on a flight from Dubai arrive at Toronto Pearson airport's Terminal 1 on Jan. 6. Travellers returning to Canada are enduring long waits at customs and security clearance, and being made to sit in planes, sometimes for more than an hour, before they can disembark.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Some of Canada’s busiest airports are warning of excess delays, while its biggest is asking Ottawa to boost staffing levels at passenger screening checkpoints to alleviate lengthy waits and long lineups.

Travellers returning to Canada are enduring long waits at customs and security clearance, and being made to sit in planes, sometimes for more than an hour, before they can disembark.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), operator of Toronto Pearson, Canada’s busiest airport, says this is due to delays at departure and arrival checkpoints staffed by Canadian and U.S. government agencies.

The staffing shortages are magnified by a resurgence in air travel more than two years after pandemic restrictions put an end to most resort vacations and business trips.

“International arriving passengers are facing bottlenecks and very lengthy delays in border processing—a direct result of legacy public health requirements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the GTAA said in a statement on Wednesday. “To prevent severe passenger congestion, airport and airline staff are forced to hold passengers on planes and deliberately meter the flow of arriving travellers into the customs hall for processing by [customs inspectors], a process that we know and appreciate is incredibly frustrating for passengers.”

The GTAA pointed to staffing shortages at pre-flight security screening run by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), U.S. customs preclearance provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, international clearance by the Canada Border Services Agency, and health checks from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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Staff at Vancouver International Airport warned passengers recently to arrive as early as possible for both domestic and international flights because of CATSA’s shortages.

“It is unclear when this situation will improve,” the airport’s staff wrote in a news release last week. Vancouver is Canada’s second-busiest airport. It is transporting 45,000 passengers daily and expects that number to grow, the news release said. Aeroports de Montreal, which operates the Montreal–Trudeau International Airport, said on Wednesday that its passengers have also faced serious delays due to a labour shortage in recent weeks, including for international flights.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters on Monday that he and his ministry are working with CATSA to solve the delays within a “few weeks.” He acknowledged that the problems were due to a staffing shortage, and said there would be no quick fix. “If you turn off the economy, once you turn it back on, it comes back with imbalances in it. We’re seeing it especially in the travel sector.”

Toronto resident Steve Freiman flew into Pearson from a holiday on the Turks and Caicos Islands two weeks ago and had to stay in his seat for 75 minutes before being allowed to leave. He said he has had to endure such waits a few times since the winter. “It was very difficult,” said Mr. Freiman, who suffers from claustrophobia. “It’s just the indignity of it. There is no excuse for this. This is the largest international airport in the country and you have to be prepared.”

WestJet Airlines is concerned about the delays the poor service from government agencies is causing, spokeswoman Madison Kruger said. The Calgary-based airline is carrying more passengers now than it has since the beginning of the pandemic. “These issues are causing unnecessary delays that affect the entire travel and tourism ecosystem,” Ms. Kruger said.

The GTAA called on the government to eliminate random COVID-19 testing on arrival; invest in more staffing and technology; and to encourage the U.S. government to return its on-site workforce to pre-pandemic levels.

“While we may be open, we are far from recovered,” the GTAA said. “Recognizing aviation’s importance to the national economy and global perceptions of Canada, we need government’s immediate help to support air sector recovery so we can once again proudly welcome the world.”

CATSA said on Monday it is working to reduce waiting times, reporting that the past two years saw a “number of layoffs throughout the aviation industry, including the security-screening workforce.” CATSA said its third-party security contractors are working to increase staffing, but are facing recruitment challenges echoed throughout the commercial aviation industry.

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