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Low-cost carriers such as WestJet Airlines’ Swoop say the reliability of smaller airports such as Hamilton and Abbotsford International Airport, near Vancouver, helps their business model.Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

For the past five years, Jim Ross has chosen to fly out of Hamilton International Airport instead of Toronto’s Pearson International whenever possible. But now that pent-up travel demand and staffing shortages at Pearson have led to long lines, flight delays and cancellations, he avoids the Toronto airport at all costs.

“I’ve heard people are showing up three, four hours early and worrying whether or not they’re going to make it onto the plane,” at Pearson, said Mr. Ross, who travels often for work.

“For me, in Hamilton, it was less than 10 minutes from getting in the line to check in and getting through security.”

Passengers travelling through Toronto Pearson, Canada’s busiest airport, face long waits to get through understaffed security checkpoints and customs screening. Passengers are often held on board aircraft because arrival terminal halls are overcrowded.

“Everywhere you go now people are talking about how you avoid Pearson,” said Jan De Silva, president of Toronto Region Board of Trade.

Dina Carlucci, Hamilton airport’s director of business development and customer experience, says woes at major Canadian airports are helping to shine a spotlight on smaller airports as an alternative.

Hamilton is already serving 90 per cent of the passengers it did in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic – a level it didn’t expect to reach until 2023 or 2024, and which Ms. Carlucci said is higher than other hubs.

Part of the reason is the airport largely serves domestic destinations, which were less impacted by COVID-19 travel restrictions than foreign ones, and remain in high demand as many travellers choose domestic options as less risky alternatives.

“For us to already have numbers that almost reflect 2019 this summer, that shows that there’s a real positive sense that it’s going to grow from here, provided there isn’t another wave of COVID,” said Ms. Carlucci, who pointed out there are nine million people within a two-hour drive of the airport.

“A lot of people were already leaving big cities for smaller cities pre-COVID, and the pandemic has exacerbated that.”

Low-cost carriers such as WestJet Airlines’ Swoop say the reliability of smaller airports such as Hamilton and Abbotsford International Airport, near Vancouver, helps their business model.

“Residents of the Greater Toronto Area have found an alternate solution with the ease and convenience that Hamilton’s John C. Munro International Airport offers, and we’re happy to report that our flights from Hamilton perform very well,” said Bert van der Stege, Swoop’s head of commercial and finance.

“The YHM catchment area may grow this summer, as more Torontonians are prepared to travel to Hamilton,” he said, citing Hamilton’s airport letter code.

WestJet said it wasn’t sure if issues at major hubs were directly driving customers to smaller airports, such as Hamilton, but said they’re an option that travellers should consider.

“We encourage it,” WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell said by phone. “That’s what they’re there for.”

Meanwhile, airlines, airports and industry groups all called on the government to drop remaining health protocols that are contributing to the bottlenecks. On Friday, Ottawa announced it would drop its policy of random testing for arriving travellers, but would keep its vaccine requirement for domestic travel in place.

The issue of staffing shortages among federal aviation authorities is also still plaguing airports.

Monette Pasher, head of the Canadian Airports Council, underlined the importance of smooth operations at Canada’s major airports, given delays that cascade for travellers transferring between flights.

“When our hub airports see impacts like this there are knock-on effects through the entire system because all of our hub airports feed into our spoke airports,” Ms. Pasher said.

Ms. Carlucci said Hamilton’s airport isn’t immune to staffing shortages and knock-on effects from delays at other airports, but it hasn’t experienced any unusually long delays yet.

She also said Hamilton’s strong performance in recent months helps its long-term prospects as an alternative to Toronto’s Pearson International – in the same way that cities such as London and Tokyo each have two major airports. While the majority of routes in and out of Hamilton are still domestic, there are direct flights to Florida, Las Vegas, Mexico and Caribbean destinations.

“I think we need that, and the reason why we see such congestion is because Pearson continues to be the main option,” said Ms. Carlucci.

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