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Travellers crowd the security queue in the departures lounge at the start of the Victoria Day holiday long weekend at Toronto Pearson International Airport on May 20.COLE BURSTON/Reuters

Passengers at Canada’s largest airport experienced cancelled flights, lost luggage and lengthy wait times this weekend, as police were called in to handle conflicts between travellers and staff.

At Toronto Pearson International Airport, at least 10 per cent of all flights – departures and arrivals – were cancelled on Saturday, according to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Dozens were delayed.

A severe thunderstorm that swept through Ontario and Quebec on Saturday afternoon led to many cancellations. It hit as Pearson has already been dealing with complaints about travel delays, with pent-up demand from customers who have not flown during the pandemic colliding with a shortage of people to load luggage and conduct customs and security checks.

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The GTAA, the agency that runs Pearson, is pointing to the airlines and Ottawa as bearing responsibility. Canada’s Transport Minister has pointed the finger at out-of-practice fliers.

This weekend, many travellers stranded during layovers had no choice but to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the airport or to shell out for hotel rooms. Several passengers told The Globe and Mail that airline staff declined to give them meal or accommodations vouchers.

In an e-mailed statement, the GTAA said it is airlines that make the decisions to cancel flights.

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Police were called to Toronto Pearson International Airport on May 21 amid flight delays and cancellations.Handout

“We appreciate that this is frustrating and ask that all involved remember to be respectful. This extends to both in-person interactions and online,” said Elley Prior, communications officer for GTAA.

A spokeswoman for WestJet placed the blame on the federal government. “As Canadians return to travel for the first time in more than two years, we remain extremely concerned with the state of services provided by government agencies,” said Morgan Bell, WestJet public-relations manager, in a statement.

Stephen Jones, president and chief executive officer of Flair Airlines, expressed his regret over delays and cancellations. “We suffered a perfect storm of crews timing out, coupled with a maintenance issue,” he said in a statement. “We needed to do better.”

Air Canada did not respond to requests for comment.

But it was baggage concerns – not delays and cancellations – that led to Peel Regional Police being called to the airport at least four times on Saturday, according to interviews with passengers.

They described jarring experiences with checked luggage, where hundreds of bags were left stranded at different locations around the airport. Travellers kept asking staff about their bags but were met with a lack of answers.

Peel Police acknowledged the presence of officers at the airport, but did not provide any further details. Passengers said police were called in when arguments had gotten heated.

Allison Stephen, 26, drove to Calgary’s airport from Fort Saskatchewan on Saturday. She was flying to Toronto to see her partner, who had a rare weekend off from his military service. She spent four hours waiting for her checked luggage at Pearson.

“It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had,” Ms. Stephen said. “I saw an understandably angry mob of people from all over the world who had been waiting for hours. Eventually, they called the cops on them.”

The GTAA said not all baggage handling is its responsibility. “Baggage handling, including removing from aircraft, putting into the baggage system and the rate at which bags are put onto a baggage carousel is the responsibility of the airline and their contracted ground handling company,” Ms. Prior said.

“The physical baggage system and maintaining the system is the responsibility of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.”

John Petruk, 47, was not allowed to get off his plane after landing in Toronto from Barcelona for hours. “That is absolutely inhumane,” he said.

Ms. Prior said “many critical airport processes” were delayed because of the storm on Saturday. “Moreover, 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,” she said.

Reports about delays at Pearson have been circulating widely in recent weeks. Numerous passengers have taken to social media to vent their frustration.

The GTAA said these delays have been because of staffing shortages, specifically at customs and security checkpoints – issues over which it continues to press the federal government.

But Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters last week it is rusty travellers – returning to flying after the pandemic – who are causing delays. “Taking out the laptops, taking out the fluids – all that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,” he said.

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