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When air travel, grounded by the pandemic, began to take off again, Toronto’s main airport had too few staff to handle it – and critics say a broken chain of command left no one accountable for fixing what happened next

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Travellers at Toronto's Pearson airport on the Victoria Day weekend. From May through July, Pearson had a higher rate of flight delays than any of the 500 busiest airports in the world, according to FlightAware.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

They bore the brunt of the near shutdown of the aviation industry. Tens of thousands of pilots, flight attendants, security screeners and baggage handlers were suddenly out of work when passenger travel all but vanished during the early days of the pandemic. Many of them left the industry for good.

Tim Perry, a WestJet pilot and president of the Canadian arm of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), warned politicians 10 months into the pandemic that it would take several years for all those jobs to return without financial aid from Ottawa.

Along with other union leaders, Mr. Perry urged the federal government to create a national recovery plan to carry airlines and airports through the crisis and ensure they were ready to return to the skies as soon as pandemic restrictions were lifted. “It’s not an industry where you can flick the light off and have it just be flicked on again,” he told a parliamentary committee in January, 2021.

But the airlines did just that. In February of this year, they began adding flights in earnest, responding to the pent-up demand for travel. Between that month and May, air traffic increased 63 per cent at Toronto Pearson International Airport, according to tracking company FlightRadar24. The number of flights departing Pearson in May climbed to 83 per cent of the levels in May, 2019.

It became immediately clear that the industry wasn’t ready for the rebound. As throngs of passengers headed to airports, airlines and the government agencies that screen travellers at security and customs checks were scrambling to hire and train new employees and recall those they had laid off during the pandemic, many of whom declined to return.

Cancellations soon followed. In April, roughly 1 per cent of flights departing from Toronto Pearson were cancelled, according to Cirium, an aviation analytics company. By June, the cancellation rate had ballooned to 8 per cent.

Yet despite the long queues going through security, last-minute flight cancellations and lost luggage, airlines continued to aggressively add flights in the weeks that followed. Air travel in Britain, Europe and elsewhere in Canada was also disrupted amid staff shortages, but the delays at Toronto Pearson were worse than anywhere else.

In each of May, June and July, Pearson had the highest rate of flight delays among the world’s 500 busiest airports, according to data provided by aviation intelligence company FlightAware. During those three months combined, 53 per cent of flights departing from Toronto Pearson arrived at least 15 minutes late. Montreal-Trudeau International Airport came in second, with 46 per cent of its flights delayed.

“There was no strategic thinking from the beginning,” Mr. Perry said in an interview. “All of the elements that make up the aviation system were operating with their own self-interests in mind, their own perceived short-term interests in mind.”

The chaos at Toronto Pearson has laid bare a broken governance system, not only in the Canadian airport model itself but among the multiple federal agencies serving the aviation industry, The Globe and Mail has found. There is no clearly defined chain of command overseeing the industry, according to interviews with experts, union officials, House and Senate committee testimony and governance reports. As a result, no one stepped in to prevent the crisis when it first became evident the airport could not handle the traffic volumes.

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A sign features Pearson's call letters, YYZ.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Toronto Pearson, like other major airports in Canada, is owned by the federal government but leased to a not-for-profit agency responsible for running the airport’s business as well as funding upkeep and renovations. In Pearson’s case, it is the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA).

Transport Canada, the landlord, is responsible for drafting and enforcing regulations, including safety and security standards. It runs the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a Crown corporation that hires private-sector companies to conduct security checks on passengers and their luggage.

The Canada Border Services Agency oversees border control, customs and immigration enforcement.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is responsible for managing the country’s response to the pandemic. The federal agency enforces travel restrictions, including requiring passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and randomly testing travellers arriving from other countries.

The airlines, meanwhile, are all owned and operated by private, for-profit entities and are responsible for the passengers and their luggage.

But with no principal agency running the show, said Ian Lee, a business professor at Carleton University, nobody’s really in charge. “This just violates all the norms of governance.” The lack of oversight has been on full display at Toronto Pearson, with each federal agency acting autonomously, Prof. Lee said. Transport Canada should be responsible for overseeing the aviation sector and co-ordinating with other agencies, but it has acted passively “as a mere landlord,” he said.

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Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra could have used his powers to order airlines to cancel flights – which would have been unpopular with travellers. But he chose not to do so. Neither did the GTAA, which instead asked airlines in June to voluntarily reduce the number of flights. Meanwhile, the airlines, the GTAA and the federal agencies were quick to duck responsibility, pointing fingers at others for a lack of staffing and planning. Mr. Alghabra blamed rusty travellers unaccustomed to the rituals of check-in – pulling out laptops and fluids for inspection. “All that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,” he said in May.

Flaws in the governance model were foreseeable shortly after Ottawa handed over management of Canada’s 26 largest airports in the 1990s to not-for-profit agencies but retained ownership of them. In a 2000 report, the Auditor-General of Canada said Transport Canada had adopted a “predominantly hands-off approach” and had become “largely passive” about monitoring and overseeing the airport system.

Little has changed since then. A government bill introduced in 2003 followed up on the Auditor-General’s report by establishing responsibilities for the federal government and the airport operators. A second bill introduced in 2006 also attempted to address governance deficiencies. But both died when federal elections were called.

In a 2013 report, the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications said Canada’s air transport industry suffered from a lack of co-ordinated direction and recommended the creation of a single, cohesive national air travel strategy.

The Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations weighed in the following year. “Owing to Canadian government’s policy of leaving the airports to fend for themselves,” it said in a report, “one has to question Canadian airport governance.”

Duncan Dee, a former chief operating officer at Air Canada, was the air transportation lead on a review of the Canada Transportation Act (CTA) tabled in Parliament in 2016. Aviation officials who appeared before the panel expressed concerns about the governance model and the lack of straight lines of accountability, he said in an interview. “You’re never sure who is responsible ultimately,” he said. “It’s just this constant buck passing that you get.”

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Travellers look through a sea of luggage for their belongings at the Pearson arrivals area on June 29. Airlines, which are private companies, are responsible for luggage, but other private firms hired by a federal agency are responsible for screening it.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Brampton, Ont., resident Darshan Maharaja, 58, flew back to Toronto Pearson from San Francisco on a Monday night in May after attending a family reunion. As the Air Canada plane taxied to the gate, the pilot told passengers they had to remain on board due to delays at customs. After a 40-minute wait, Mr. Maharaja disembarked only to face a packed customs hall. “I have never seen it so crowded,” he recalled.

It took another 60 minutes before he was through. The delay, he said, was clearly due to a lack of employees; of the 33 customs counters, just six had officers at them.

He also questioned the duplication of steps. Before boarding his flight home, he uploaded his vaccine certificate and passport information to the government’s ArriveCAN app, only to be asked to input it again at Pearson. After making his way through another lineup, a customs officer also asked for his passport and asked questions about his health and travels.

The mood in the terminal was one of “quiet resignation,” he said. “I mean, people knew that there was no point voicing anything at that juncture because the people who were working there were trying … to help everyone as much as they could.”

Mr. Maharaja is just one of many unhappy travellers in recent months. The Canadian Transportation Agency, which seeks to adjudicate passenger complaints, received 4,513 complaints about disrupted flights between May 1 and July 31 this year, four times the volume during the same period in 2019.

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Deborah Flint, CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Deborah Flint, the chief executive officer of the GTAA, said the addition of flights at Toronto was simply much faster than at other airports.

“Pearson went from being one of the most shutdown 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.”

John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University and spent almost two decades at Air Canada in various operational roles, said the crisis at Toronto Pearson is the result of two decisions made almost two years apart.

Early in the pandemic, airlines, the airport and other players conserved cash by laying off thousands of workers, Mr. Gradek said.

Air Canada alone temporarily cut 16,500 jobs in April, 2020, reducing its work force by half. WestJet slashed its head count through layoffs and voluntary departures to about 6,000 by August of 2021 from 14,000.

In early 2022, when airlines saw a “tsunami of passengers showing up,” Mr. Gradek said, they stepped up ticket sales and booked more flights for the summer.

“It really was a surprise to the airlines that the demand came in that quickly,” he said. “The airports and all of the agencies at the airports basically were put on a mad scramble to try to find people.”

Air Canada, the country’s biggest airline, announced Feb. 22 that it was preparing for the peak summer vacation season by restoring 34 routes across the Atlantic and Pacific and another 41 in North America, as well as adding flights to several cities. Michael Rousseau, the airline’s chief executive officer, sounded optimistic during a conference call on April 26. “We’re not seeing any barriers for us to be able to get back to where we were in 2019 from a capacity perspective,” he told an analyst.

However, bringing back thousands of laid-off employees and hiring new ones has proven to be no easy task.

Employers trying to recruit new workers face the tightest job market in decades, with a national unemployment rate hovering around 5 per cent. Adding to the challenge, wages for baggage handlers, ramp and cabin workers, security screeners, cargo staff and gate agents are roughly a decade behind where they should be owing to a series of pay freezes over the past two decades, said Dave Flowers, the president of District 140 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). His union represents CATSA-contracted workers in Ontario and B.C., along with ground crew employees for Air Canada, Air Transat and Menzies, a ground handling contractor.

Air Canada alone is currently trying to fill 1,200 unionized positions at the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airports, Mr. Flowers said. At Toronto Pearson, the airline needs another 400 baggage handlers by September in addition to the 1,400 currently working there, he said.

The airline is temporarily offering the senior wage of $21 an hour, up from $16, while other employers have raised their hourly rates to as much as $21.75, according to Mr. Flowers. But the wage increases mean companies are simply hiring workers away from one another instead of attracting new employees. And the few new hires are not necessarily stanching the labour shortage, either, partly because of the limited availability of restricted area identity cards, or RAICs – security badges that allow staff to move freely within secure areas of the airport.

Getting one takes time. Applicants have to complete an airport security and safety awareness course, then apply for a Transport Canada security clearance, a process that can take three to six months. Only then can they apply to the airport authority for a RAIC.

The demand for people with such credentials has further led employers to poach experienced workers from competitors. “We have members that are leaving one bargaining unit and just going to another bargaining unit within our union because they’re being offered 50 cents or a dollar more,” Mr. Flowers said. “They’re stealing from Peter to give to Paul.”

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Grounded Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Airlines typically file two flight schedules a year – one for the summer and one for the winter. Roughly six months in advance, they analyze the projected revenue side of the business (the estimated passenger traffic) against the cost side (the number of staff needed to operate the schedules).

Teams in charge of planning use data in the flight schedule to plot schedules for different groups of staff, including pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents, baggage handlers and maintenance personnel. The schedules build in reserve staff who can be called in to fill gaps because of absenteeism.

The airlines notify various players operating out of the airport about how many flights they are planning and how many customers are projected, but it is rare for anyone to push back, said Mr. Dee, the former Air Canada executive. “When you go into a meeting with a summer plan in place, what you normally get is everybody high-fiving each other,” he said.

Yet CATSA, the Crown corporation responsible for security, put the industry on notice last year that it may face challenges “effectively managing” greater workloads. “There is a risk that CATSA’s current staff capacity, in particular areas, may be inadequate to sustain current workloads and to support a healthy work environment,” said its corporate plan for fiscal 2022, released in September, 2021.

CATSA has been planning for an increase in passenger traffic since May, 2021, said spokesperson Sandra Alvarez. CATSA pays three companies to conduct security checks on passengers and luggage, including GardaWorld, at Pearson.

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Travellers check the board for flight statuses at Pearson.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On June 9, The Globe reported that Air Canada had made deep cuts to its schedule at Toronto Pearson. The airline had cancelled more than 350 flights in the first seven days of June, almost 10 per cent of its schedule. That same day, the airline flew 472 flights in and out of Toronto Pearson, more than on any other day since the pandemic largely shut down travel, according to Cirium, the aviation data company.

The next day, the GTAA asked Air Canada and other airlines to keep cutting by voluntarily reducing flight schedules ahead of the summer season.

“Over 1.5 million seats were reduced out of the schedules for the remainder of summer,” Ms. Flint, the GTAA CEO, told reporters. “What we’re seeing is that those are having positive effects.”

On-time performance has improved to 44 per cent from as low as 25 per cent since the end of June, she said, stopping short of predicting when operations will return to normal.

In an interview on May 25, she explained why she did not ask the airlines to voluntarily reduce flights earlier or step in and order them to do so. “The industry is still very much in recovery,” she said. “So it’s a very difficult position for the industry to be in, when it’s trying to recover and to get people that want to fly into the country and to do business again, to say, ‘There’s going to be capacity limits.’”

Much like the airlines, the GTAA also had an interest in seeing flight volumes return to their pre-pandemic levels. The federal government waived its lease payments for 2020 and announced in April, 2021, that it was providing emergency loans to airlines. The financial relief did not go far enough, however, leaving the entire sector “coming out of this pandemic financially much weaker,” said GTAA spokesperson Ryan White.

In good times, about a third of Toronto Pearson’s revenue comes from passengers, in the form of the airport improvement fee and terminal charge tacked onto every airfare. This runs about $38 for a domestic passenger. The rest of its revenue comes from landing and terminal fees charged to airlines and from car parking, retail and counter rentals and other non-aeronautical sources.

The GTAA took a big financial hit when passenger revenues dried up, losing $350-million in 2021. Its total debt rose by $800-million, to $7.2-billion. Debt per passenger, an industry measure of financial health, soared to $1,136 in 2021 from $268 in 2017.

A spokesperson for Mr. Alghabra did not respond to questions about the government’s oversight of airports or why the Transport Minister did not intervene when the chaos began. “We have never directed airlines to reduce or alter flight numbers to address delays,” Laurel Lennox said in an e-mail.

Mr. Alghabra is set to testify this week at the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, where he will be asked how the government plans to address the flight cancellations and delays. It remains to be seen, however, whether an overhaul of the oversight model is on the government’s agenda.

Prof. Lee said Ottawa should appoint a single agency as the strategic decision-making body overseeing all components of the aviation industry in Canada, including rules affecting health, border control, security screening and staffing levels. “COVID exposed the fact that muddling through is no longer a viable option,” he said.

For his part, Wesley Lesosky, the airline division president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who represents 15,000 flight attendants at nine airlines, is anxious to hear what the minister will tell the committee. “Nobody seems to be able to give a definite answer when it’ll be fixed, how it’ll be fixed or how the problem kind of arose,” he said.

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