Ashley Nunes is a research fellow at Harvard Law School.
Messy, impossible, difficult. Those are just some of the words air travellers have used to describe the situation at Canada’s busiest airport. In recent months, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has been plagued by long delays, lineups and cancellations. The result – according to former hockey pro Ryan Whitney – is, “the biggest disgrace known to man.” Hyperbole aside (Mr. Whitney has clearly not suffered through midnight arrival queues at the Mumbai airport), he does have a point. Delays at Pearson are bad, so bad in fact that some passengers are waiting for hours inside the airplanes they arrive on because of lengthy queues at customs.
Being one of those passengers, I would know. But as I recently discovered, the fun starts long before you get into the terminal building. Thirty minutes before landing in Toronto last week, a cheerful flight attendant made the anticipated, yet unwelcome announcement. “Folks, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we should be on the ground shortly. The bad news is that once we get to the gate, passengers must remain in their seats for a while longer to prevent overcrowding in the terminal. The airport authority will let us know when you can safely disembark.”
While some blame federal COVID rules for slowing operations down, government and industry alike agree that another main issue is staffing shortages. Security screeners, luggage handlers and check-in agents are in short supply. If we had more of them, passenger pains would ease.
Wooing industry recruits wasn’t always a slog. Careers in aviation were once highly sought after. The reason? Plentiful perks. Bag handlers and customer service agents for example, could in exchange for their labour, count on paid time off and a generous pension. These benefits reflected protectionism (rather than altruism) at its finest. Airlines could afford to be generous with workers because Ottawa protected these carriers from competition. However, the gravy train – for workers at least – ended with deregulation. Starting in the 1970s, as neoliberalism took hold, Ottawa moved away from backing airlines, opting instead to regulate them. The result was a free marketeer’s dream.
No longer shielded by government coffers, balance sheets soon took a beating as competition in the market intensified. The response from incumbents (and their competitors) was both swift and predictable. C-suite execs embarked on aggressive cost-cutting campaigns. Predictably first on the chopping block: employee perks. To save cash, work contracts were trimmed and where possible, tendered out to third party vendors that offered the lowest bid. The result for flyers was what they desired most: rock-bottom fares. The consequence for workers however was what they desired least, low pay and less attractive working conditions.
This trend continues today. Take airport security personnel. You’d think with a job as vital as theirs, pay would be attractive. You’d hope these professionals would – given their importance – be in the government’s employ. Not so much. In cities like Vancouver, security officers earn less than what is considered a living wage. And few (if any) screeners countrywide are directly employed by Ottawa. Instead, their employment contracts are funneled through third-party screening vendors. Civil servants are after all, pricy. Contractors, less so.
As for their working conditions, security screeners for example are promised, “a vibrant and dynamic work environment that inspires growth and promotes excellence.” Vibrant and dynamic is one way to describe running security checkpoints at an airport. Abusive and thankless is another. I would know. working one of these checkpoints was my first job out of college. For the record, I lasted 30 minutes. Between low pay, long hours and throngs of grouchy passengers, I quit before I had even really started. Somehow, watching paint dry seemed more rewarding.
Baggage handlers fare even worse. Loading and unloading bags is a slog. But doing so at the height of summer, the depths of winter, through sweltering heat or nail-biting cold, on short notice for flights running behind schedule, and you’re begging for resignation en masse.
So here’s an idea. How about we make working at an airport more attractive to potential recruits? How about we treat airport workers better? This means boosting pay and giving these professionals more time off. Staffing airports isn’t easy, and work contracts should reflect that. It admittedly won’t be cheap, or painless. Higher personnel costs are inevitably passed on to passengers. But is that really a bad thing? In an era of budget travel, flyers have been lured by the promise of everything for (almost) nothing, a proverbial free lunch.
After decades working in the industry, I’m here to tell you there’s no such thing.
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