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National Airlines Council of Canada urges Ottawa on decision of privatizing airport security

Canada’s airlines are expressing growing frustration with unpredictable airport security delays and the federal government’s silence as to how it plans to address the issue.

For several years now, passengers, airlines and airports have been urging Ottawa to improve passenger screening, but Ottawa has gone quiet since announcing a major policy review nearly two years ago.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced in the fall of 2016 that he would be reviewing the way screening is governed and funded and his department consulted industry last year on specific proposals. The department asked for feedback on the possibility of privatizing the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a Crown corporation set up to manage passenger security screening following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.

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But the government has yet to announce the results of those consultations, leading to frustration on the part of the National Airlines Council of Canada, an industry group that represents Air Canada, Jazz Aviation, WestJet and Air Transat.

In a July 30 letter to Mr. Garneau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, council president Massimo Bergamini expressed concern about the lack of clarity regarding the government’s plans.

“With privatization of security screening being one of the models being contemplated, and with growing evidence that the current system is bursting at the seams, it is urgent that there be an open discussion on options and their relative cost/benefit to travellers and to the industry that serves them,” Mr. Bergamini stated, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The federal screening body has faced years of criticism over worsening delays at Canada’s largest airports.

In many cases, the agents are private security screeners, such as GardaWorld Aviation Services, who have been contracted by CATSA.

Passengers are supposed to be screened in 15 minutes or less, 85 per cent of the time, on average, according to CATSA’s service targets. However, in a note to MPs late last year, CATSA said hitting that target during peak periods “is not feasible” with existing equipment and staffing levels.

It also said that even with more funding, Canada’s main airports do not have enough space to accommodate the extra screening lines that would be required to meet the target during peak periods, which can vary depending on flight schedules. Focusing on peak periods would also create inefficiencies because screening staff would be “idle and on standby” during off-peak periods, CATSA noted.

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The work of CATSA is funded by Parliament primarily with funds from the Air Travellers’ Security Charge paid by passengers. However, the group representing Canada’s airlines is accusing the government of using the fee as a source of “windfall” funds.

The annual amount spent by CATSA is repeatedly below the amount raised by the Air Travellers Security Charge, which was $768-million in 2016-17. The airline industry says it appears from government documents that only $725.3-million was used by CATSA that year, but a CATSA official told MPs that federal capital and operating funding added up to $759-million.

A senior Transport official told MPs in November that the gap between fee revenue and security spending is a “known issue” that is being studied.

A spokesperson for Mr. Garneau, Mélany Gauvin, declined to say when the government will announce its next steps. Ms. Gauvin noted the 2018 budget included a $241-million boost to CATSA to address short-term passenger volume issues.

“This funding will also give the government the flexibility it requires to finalize its review of the future funding and governance of [CATSA],” she said in a statement.

A consultation paper sent to industry last year outlined four potential options for CATSA. The first two essentially proposed minor tweaks to the status quo, while the third and fourth options proposed transferring the authority for passenger screening to either a non-share and not-for-profit entity or to airport authorities.

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Under those two options, the government would continue to set security standards and regulations and would inspect operations.

Privatizing CATSA was one of the recommendations of a major review of federal transportation policy by former industry minister David Emerson. The study was approved by the previous Conservative government but delivered to Mr. Garneau in 2016.

The Emerson report said he and his team “heard near-universal condemnation of the existing state of security screening services at Canadian airports.”

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