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The chaos in airports in Canada and around the world this summer has been frustrating for a lot of travellers, but no one can say it hasn’t also been an education in the delicate complexity of international passenger flight.

Like the butterfly effect, in which the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one location is theoretically able to cause a tornado in another, one hiccup in the airline system that on its own isn’t a big deal can cause global chaos.

And now here we are in the aftermath of the worst calamity ever to strike the airline industry – one that is magnitudes greater than any before it – and every day there are new horror stories about late or cancelled departures, arrivals forced to sit on the tarmac for hours while waiting for a gate, luggage that disappears into the ether, and airlines that won’t pick up the phone.

Worse still, there may be little that can be done to restore service to normal levels this summer. People around the world, starved of travel and longing to see family after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, are unlikely to enjoy a worry-free trip before the fall, at the earliest.

This appears to be particularly true in Canada. According to data kept by FlightAware, 53 per cent of the flights leaving Toronto Pearson Airport were delayed on Friday. At Montreal-Trudeau, 43 per cent departed late. At Vancouver International, 36 per cent.

These numbers are troubling when compared with major American airports on the same day. Only 19 per cent of flights out of Chicago-O’Hare were delayed on Friday, and only 22 per cent at LaGuardia in New York, 11 per cent at Boston-Logan and 15 per cent at Washington-Dulles.

The same day, Air Canada saw 65 per cent of its flights leave late around the world. For WestJet, the number was 63 per cent. On a percentage basis, those numbers were four times higher than those of United Airlines (16 per cent) and Delta (15 per cent), and more than double American Airlines (27 per cent).

The numbers for Saturday were strikingly similar in almost every case. Canadians need answers as to why their airports and airlines are doing so much worse than their American counterparts.

All the world’s airlines and airports were faced with the same disaster when the pandemic hit in 2020. Traffic dropped by 60 per cent globally compared with 2019, and was still down nearly 50 per cent a year later.

Airlines laid off tens of thousands of staff, as did the services in the delicate web that keeps planes flying on time: airport security, baggage handlers and air traffic controllers.

The result is that the industry in Asia, Europe and North America was unprepared for the steep rebound in demand this summer. Every part of it is short-staffed and struggling to hire workers in straitened labour markets. Labour disputes in some countries haven’t helped. As many as 2,000 flights around the world are being cancelled every day, and 10 times as many are being delayed.

“This is the worst summer meltdown for airline customer service in the 37 years I’ve spent working in, writing about and advocating about the airlines,” one aviation expert told The New York Times last week.

That should provide some perspective for angry Canadian travellers. This is not a problem peculiar to one country, even if the delays are more acute here.

But asking questions about it is important because there appears to be a deeper issue.

A corresponding spike in demand for passport renewals has left Canadians standing in lines for hours, or even days, this summer. The federal government acknowledged last week that it failed to anticipate the surge in demand.

And while Canadians might be anxious about travelling by plane, they should be more worried about getting sick or injured right now. Staffing shortages caused by illness and burnout, combined with rising COVID-19 cases, mean people are waiting more than eight hours for care in emergency rooms across the country. Some hospitals have even had to shut down their ERs.

A lot of fundamental stuff isn’t working in Canada this summer. If the pandemic was the flap of a butterfly wing turned into a tornado, its consequences have exposed a fragility in the workings of this country that is far more worrisome than a delayed flight or a lost suitcase.

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