Deborah Flint, head of the company that runs Toronto Pearson airport, assured travellers the delays, cancellations and lost luggage that have plagued Canada’s biggest air hub are improving, but she declined to give targets or say when operations will return to normal.
Ms. Flint, chief executive officer of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the labour shortages at the airport’s agencies, contractors and airlines are getting better, and that airport staff are working with all parties to better manage schedules, including cancelling some flights. On-time performance has improved to 44 per cent from as low as 25 and 35 per cent since the busy summer travel season began, she told reporters at a news conference on Friday.
But she would not offer a target nor a deadline, dashing the hopes of travellers hoping for a smooth trip through the airport. “There is still work to be done to get Pearson back on track,” Ms. Flint said.
She pointed to the complexity of the airport, which encompassed 400 companies and 50,000 people before the pandemic halted most air travel. Activity at the airport declined to 25 per cent of normal volumes owing to the pandemic, and much of the work force was laid off. Canada’s travel quiet period outlasted many countries because of vaccine requirements and other restrictions that remained in place for longer.
As the pandemic eased and some restrictions were lifted, airlines in late spring began offering about 80 per cent of their usual schedules.
“Pearson went from being one of the most shut down airports in the world to one of the busiest,” she said. “We didn’t go from zero to 100. We went from zero to 500. Our pause was longer and our ramp up to the summer was much steeper than other airports.”
She pointed to the “shared responsibility” of the government agencies and companies that work to handle planes and passengers. These include Canadian transportation, health and public safety ministries, NavCanada air traffic control and U.S. border services, on top of the airlines, caterers, and contractors that handle baggage, fuel and other companies. Still, Ms. Flint said she was responsible for ensuring all the groups work so passengers are not inconvenienced.
“I take accountability,” she said. “I am deeply committed to making sure that the passengers have a great and reliable experience. As I’ve led the airport to be one of the top airports in the world, I am committed to making sure that we ride back to that status.”
Airlines have voluntarily trimmed their schedules, prodded by airport officials. Air Canada cancelled about 10 per cent of its summer schedule, much of it at Toronto and Montreal, to reduce congestion. Executives at Canada’s biggest airline said last week it tried to prepare for the surge by bringing back 90 per cent of its work force to operate 80 per cent of its prepandemic schedule.
WestJet Airlines has also cut its schedule, and is operating about 80 per cent of its usual flights. “We recognize the travel environment remains challenging and sincerely apologize to our guests for any disruption we’ve caused to their long-awaited travel plans,” said Diederik Pen, WestJet’s chief operating officer, in a statement.
The problems come even through passenger volumes have yet to reach prepandemic levels.
On July 31, security staff at Canada’s eight largest airports screened more than 156,000 people, up from 68,000 on the same day in 2021, but fewer than the 176,000 checked on July 31, 2019.
Richard Banigan, 80, recently spent a night at Toronto Pearson because the driver he paid to pick him up could not find him in the chaos.
Mr. Banigan landed at Pearson on an Air Canada flight from Dallas-Fort Worth just after 9 p.m. on July 6. The plane idled an hour on the tarmac before parking at a gate. “It was about as far away from the arrivals department as you could possibly get, an extremely long walk,” said Mr. Banigan, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who has heart trouble. “There are no wheelchairs, workers or carts, anything. People had to carry their carry-on baggage by hand through this long, long passageway. There were moving sidewalks, but half of them didn’t work.
“So we finally get to arrivals and there’s this enormous long lineup. Hundreds and hundreds of people with all their bags and all crammed together, no social distancing whatsoever,” Mr. Banigan said by phone from his home near Midland, Ont.
After another 60 minutes, he was through customs and into the main terminal. He saw many people sleeping on the floors and in chairs. There was no soap in the washrooms, and many of the pay phones required coins he did not have, so he was unable to call his ride service. Outside, the pick-up lanes were “total chaos,” blocked with idling cars honking horns in the dark. His driver was nowhere to be seen. “At this point I was totally exhausted,” he said. “I found a wheelchair and just sat in it.”
He eventually got a ride home at 9 a.m. the next morning. “It seems to me this was totally unnecessary. It was very obvious there were not enough people running the place,” Mr. Banigan said.
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