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People line up to check in at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Aug. 5.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra defended the federal government’s actions in trying to contain the chaos that has plagued Toronto Pearson International Airport, telling a parliamentary committee on Friday that COVID-19 was largely to blame for months of travel disruptions.

Calling the delays experienced by travellers “frustratingly unacceptable,” Mr. Alghabra said the problems were the result of the pandemic and subsequent labour shortages. He also said that the ArriveCAN app, a requirement for travellers heading to Canada from abroad, was not responsible for delays at the border, despite MPs suggesting otherwise.

Mr. Alghabra, testifying remotely after announcing earlier this week that he had tested positive for COVID, was grilled for an hour on Friday by opposition members at a special transport committee meeting.

“Does the minister believe that the government bears any responsibility, in any way, for what has transpired this summer?” asked Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman. “Yes or no?”

“I hope that months from now, Canadians will look back and see their government was taking real action, doing everything we can to address the root causes of the issues,” Mr. Alghabra said.

“I hear that the answer is no,” Ms. Lantsman replied.

How did Pearson airport’s delays get so bad? Inside the patchwork system that failed to stop the crisis

Xavier Barsalou-Duval, Bloc Québécois transport critic, later said, “The problem’s clearly on your end. Instead of taking action, you chose to blame airports and airlines.”

“We acted quickly,” Mr. Alghabra responded. “We were preparing for it, but the surge ended up being beyond what was expected.”

Since the spring, people arriving at Toronto Pearson have experienced a litany of frustrations.

It has taken many departing travellers hours to get through security, only to find that their flights have been delayed by several hours – or cancelled altogether. Meanwhile, arriving passengers have had to wait hours to deplane and get through customs, and then discover their bags lost among a sea of luggage.

Underlying these issues is a complex system that reached a breaking point during the pandemic.

As detailed in a Globe and Mail story earlier this week, the airline industry aggressively conserved cash by laying off thousands of workers. When the demand for air travel began roaring back in early 2022, airlines and airports were caught flat-footed, unable to quickly increase staff to meet the crush of passengers.

Labour shortages have stretched across most areas of airport operation, including ramp, gate and cabin crew, cargo, baggage handling and security screening. Combined, these staffing issues have had a significant impact on the performance of Toronto Pearson, which is by far Canada’s busiest airport.

In May, June and July, Pearson had the most significant delays among the world’s 500 busiest airports, according to data from aviation intelligence company FlightAware. Over that three-month period, 52.8 per cent of flights leaving Toronto Pearson arrived at least 15 minutes late. Ms. Lantsman said the statistic was an “international embarrassment.”

As Transport Minister, Mr. Alghabra has repeatedly come under fire for Toronto Pearson’s dysfunction. Experts told The Globe earlier this week that the federal government was in part responsible for a broken system that has minimized accountability around the airport crisis.

Duncan Dee, a former chief operating officer at Air Canada, said Mr. Alghabra’s “tone was most definitely defensive.”

“He was desperately trying to broaden the focus of the committee to beyond just what he does – to all the other players – to describe the complexity of the situation, and in doing so, escape any responsibility,” Mr. Dee said. “It really reveals the mindset that, ‘Yes, this an inconvenience for us as a government, but it’s not something we’re responsible for.’ ”

Ultimately, he said, “the buck has to stop with the Minister of Transport, because there’s really nowhere else for it to go.”

Mr. Dee added that the next major air-travel peak – the December holiday rush – is less than four months away. “I really didn’t hear anything out of today’s hearings that would give anyone any confidence that 120 days is long enough to fix the problem in time,” he said.

Ian Lee, a business professor at Carleton University, said that Mr. Alghabra’s testimony “did not demonstrate a holistic or more strategic understanding of the aviation system,” and seemed to be treating the current crisis as a “political problem.”

The government is “gambling” that as COVID-19 recedes, the issues at Canadian airports will get better, Prof. Lee said. “I clearly disagree. I think he’s confusing symptoms with the underlying structural problems facing the industry.”

Instead, Prof. Lee believes Ottawa should take a “meta approach” to the aviation industry’s issues by empowering a single co-ordinating agency that would be in charge of airline policy for all of Canada.

“There are multiple regulators with their fingers in the aviation pie,” Prof. Lee said, noting that the Public Health Agency of Canada, the ArriveCAN app, security screeners and border agents all work on behalf of the government, but answer to different agencies and departments.

“We need to regulate the regulators,” he said.

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