Dressed in clothing from the previous day, Michael and Patricia Bears stood in a long, snaking line among other travellers waiting to check in at Pearson International Airport on Saturday – except they had no plans to fly that day.
The couple, who lives in Calgary, were in line to collect a second hotel voucher after they were bumped off their WestJet flight home while connecting through Toronto from Charlottetown.
”We’ve had a gong show coming and going,” said Ms. Bears, 65. The delay meant Mr. Bears had to cancel an MRI scan on his back in Calgary and will have to wait another three months for a new appointment.
The setbacks were constant during their trip to the Maritimes: Their luggage arrived two days after they did. Coming home, their flight out of Prince Edward Island was late. And though they “ran like hell” to make their connecting flight, by the time they reached the gate, their seats had already been reassigned.
”It’s insane,” Ms. Bears said. “We should be home right now.”
The Canada Day long weekend saw a continuation of summer travel chaos at Canada’s major airports, which have been hammered by a surge of travellers and a shortage of airline, security and customs workers. Some of the worst delays were in Montreal and Toronto, where check-in lineups stretched to the entrances of the terminals.
South of the border, the Fourth of July long weekend led to U.S. airports being jammed with their biggest crowds since the pandemic began in 2020.
Because of the continuing airport disruptions, last week Air Canada cancelled roughly 10 to 15 per cent of its flight schedule for July and August, a crucial period in which airlines make much of their profit.
Air Canada has said some of the issues are beyond its control, as short-staffed airports struggle to handle an immense amount of baggage sitting in terminals. Canadian airlines and airport operators have also blamed the federal government for security staffing shortages that have created bottlenecks at screening points.
WestJet spokesperson Madison Kruger said the airline has tried to alleviate stress on its system by consolidating some flights.
“Despite our consistent and proactive efforts, there remains significant operational challenges across the Canadian aviation ecosystem that fall outside of our control, contributing to significant delays and at times cancellation,” she said.
Neither airline, nor the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Pearson Airport, had statistics available about the number of flight cancellations and delays during the Canada Day weekend.
Air Canada also said summer storms in the U.S. Northeast and Florida caused some delays.
Canada’s three biggest airports in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal lost a combined $1.8-billion during the pandemic and have been forced to slash capital spending. In May, the federal government committed $330-million to tackle delays and lineups, but the issues have persisted. Airlines are regularly asking customers to arrive at airports earlier than usual to avoid missing their flights.
McGill University aviation lecturer John Gradek said Air Canada is prioritizing its premium-priced transatlantic flights as part of its strategy to cater to U.S. travellers. The airline flies U.S. customers from Chicago or other U.S. cities into Toronto or Montreal, where they are transferred to an overseas flight.
Passengers from those flights were also caught up in the chaos at Canadian airports on the weekend.
Colleen Barry, an American who lives in Italy and was travelling to San Diego, said her Air Canada flight was delayed in Venice because of a lack of cleanup crews, she was told, which led her and her family to miss their connection in Montreal.
Ms. Barry described having no idea what would happen next as she got off the plane in Montreal, since there had been no communication about alternate plans. Eventually, they spent the night in Montreal in a hotel they paid for themselves before being rerouted to California through Vancouver.
“There was nothing posted, there was nobody there to meet us and let us know what was happening, so we just sort of had to find our way ourselves with many other people doing the same thing,” she said.
Ms. Barry said she had thought it was clever to book her flight through Canada months ago, after a previous awful experience connecting through New York during the pandemic.
“We thought, we’ll go through Canada, what could go wrong?” she said.
The family tried to make the best of it by strolling through downtown Montreal and leaving the airport to sightsee in Vancouver during another nine-hour layover.
“We’re getting to see two of Canada’s most beautiful cities, so we’re looking on the bright side,” she said.
Others in Montreal’s crowded airport were more dejected, such as Lyne Audette, 59, who was waiting for her husband to return with news of their luggage.
The couple returned from a trip to the Azores more than a week ago after a delayed connecting flight with Air Canada through Toronto. Her suitcases did not.
Now, Ms. Audette wonders if she’ll ever see her luggage again. She said the experience has left her powerless, and she still doesn’t even know what city her suitcases are in.
“Last Saturday, when we landed, we waited an hour and a half in line just to report that we couldn’t find our luggage,” she said. “We were able to have a nice trip, but there were long delays everywhere, long lines and it’s a bit frustrating.”
Despite being Canada’s second busiest, Vancouver International Airport was able to avoid unusual delays this long weekend, according to Alyssa Smith, spokesperson for the Vancouver Airport Authority. Pearson serves many more connections, while more flights use Vancouver as an origin or destination point, she said.
As Ms. Barry waited for her last flight to San Diego, she hoped Vancouver’s relative calm meant she would arrive at her destination soon.
Her concern now is for when she flies back through Canada on her way home to Italy in three weeks.
“We hope we won’t have similar delays, as at that point we have to go back to work,” she said.
With reports from Eric Atkins and Associated Press
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