Ambarish Chandra is an economics professor at the University of Toronto whose research examines airlines, travel and trade. Duncan Dee is a former chief operating officer at Air Canada and a member of the panel appointed to review the Canada Transportation Act in 2016.
Canada’s airports are experiencing long lines, short tempers and frustrated travellers. News reports say that incoming planes have been held for hours on the tarmac, preventing tired and hungry passengers from disembarking, due to long lines at customs and security checkpoints. The government, airlines and airports have blamed each other, as well as factors beyond their control.
It is notable that this chaos is occurring despite lower-than-normal passenger figures. The late spring is generally a low point for both domestic and international travel, as it is sandwiched between the much busier March Break and summer travel seasons. Moreover, travel has yet to fully recover from the pandemic: Statistics Canada reports that international arrivals in March were at just three-quarters of prepandemic levels. The fact that airports cannot cope with even this number of travellers does not bode well for what should be a busy summer season ahead, especially as many Canadians prepare for their first flights in over two years.
There are three distinct explanations for the current disruptions. First, Canada is experiencing a tight labour market, making it difficult to hire workers and train them in good time. While this situation is not directly under the government’s control, and is also a positive outcome for many workers, it is something that Transport Canada should have anticipated as concerns about the pandemic abated.
The second reason relates to ongoing travel restrictions. According to analysis by Pearson airport, a typical incoming international passenger was processed by the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) in about 30 seconds prepandemic, but this has risen to as much as two minutes amid vaccination checks, preclearance security kiosks and the use of the ArriveCan app. A quadrupling of wait times will quickly lead to long lines.
The third reason for airport bottlenecks lies in preboarding traveler security. Airports in Toronto and Vancouver now regularly advise travellers to arrive extraordinarily early to get through security. But the resumption of air travel did not cause these queues: Canada’s preboarding screening system was in dire shape well before the pandemic.
It is increasingly questionable whether the continued use of vaccine mandates for travel and the ArriveCan app is achieving much more than an added layer of bureaucracy. This is true to form, as Canada’s government has been unforgivably slow to update travel procedures to reflect changed circumstances. Last summer, Canada insisted on quarantining even vaccinated travellers, and refused to allow foreign citizens to enter Canada until September, 2021, contributing to a second consecutive lost summer for Canada’s airlines, hotels and resorts. Canada has consistently been slow to drop travel bans, especially on poorer, developing countries, even when they seemed discriminatory and counterproductive. And earlier this spring, Canada dawdled on dropping the testing requirement, despite medical professionals stating that these were unnecessary in light of the worldwide spread of the Omicron variant. And now Canada is one of the last countries in the world to mandate that vaccination is necessary for both domestic and international travellers.
These rules may deter road travel as well. Americans who might otherwise routinely take spur-of-the-moment trips to Niagara Falls, Lake Louise and other Canadian destinations could be disinclined to do so because of the bureaucratic hassle of using the ArriveCan app and digging around for proof of vaccination, especially since such identification has been largely made obsolete in the United States.
Other air transportation screening agencies around the world, meanwhile, have successfully used data and technology to improve their passenger screening procedures. The Transport Security Administration in the U.S. uses intelligence and data to offer expedited screening for “known travellers” who have been prescreened and thoroughly vetted. This recognizes that spending the same amount of time on every traveler, regardless of risk, is an inefficient use of resources. Shortening procedures for such travellers reduces wait times for other passengers too. The CBSA implements similar screening procedures, but our transport authorities, Transport Canada and CATSA, stubbornly refuse to do so.
Canada’s tourism-dependent businesses cannot afford a third consecutive lost summer, especially for self-inflicted reasons. The Government of Canada still has a chance to save the summer travel peak – but it must act quickly, and end its stubbornness.
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