The federal government is facing increased pressure to axe its ArriveCan app and increase staffing in an attempt to address the chaos plaguing Canada’s major airports, where travellers face delays and cancelled flights.
For weeks, many have wound up stranded for hours at Canadian airports, most often Toronto’s Pearson International. This past weekend, Canadian airlines and airports had more flight delays than nearly any other country in the world. The blame is falling on staff shortages and the ArriveCan app, which was implemented for travellers to prove they are vaccinated and that they have a quarantine plan if they contract COVID-19.
Mark Weber, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said he believes that a lack of front-line staff, ArriveCan and an overreliance on technology in general are contributing to the delays.
“What we’re seeing specifically on the customs side is really long delays for travellers to clear customs when they’re coming into the country,” he said.
Mr. Weber said the number of front-line staff has decreased steadily over the years. Add to that, travellers face challenges when using the ArriveCan app, “which does take a lot of travellers quite a bit of time to fill out,” he said.
Mr. Weber said he would like to see the federal government hire 2,000 to 3,000 front-line officers across the country who would staff different ports of entry, including marine and land.
When it comes to ArriveCan, he said, the questions could be streamlined on the app to help speed things up. For instance, he said travellers should not have to input the address of where they are staying if there is no contact tracing. The app can also be hard to navigate for people who aren’t tech savvy, he said.
Melissa Lantsman, Conservative transport critic, said Canada’s airports have become “an international embarrassment.” She said rather than continuing to blame travellers and airlines, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and the Liberal government need to take responsibility.
“Conservatives continue to call for a return to prepandemic travel rules and staffing levels to help alleviate the delays and disarray we continue to see at Canada’s airports, including ending the mandatory usage of the ArriveCan app.”
NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said the Liberals failed to act even though they had months to prepare for travel to return and now are scrambling to hire screening officers.
“The government needs to accelerate the hiring of new staff to address shortages and ensure that workers are being paid adequately and treated fairly.”
Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a new task force of cabinet ministers to improve government services, such as passport processing, and monitor the situation at airports. In a statement Monday, co-chair and Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien’s office said the task force has met and is working to “find solutions to respond to gaps in service delivery.”
Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, whose office is responsible for ArriveCan, said that the app helps make travelling “easier and more efficient, allowing those entering Canada to electronically submit their information before arriving at the border.”
He said it also provides CBSA agents with tools to ensure that travellers are processed quickly and safely. Mr. Cohen said its use is “extremely high” and, according to their statistics, 99.7 per cent of air travellers and 94.1 per cent of land travellers successfully used it.
“Global travel volumes are up over 700 per cent since its low point during the pandemic, and airports across the world are feeling the impact. From too many flights to not enough staff, there is no single reason for these delays – but the ArriveCan app is not a major factor,” he said.
Mr. Cohen said the CBSA is making significant efforts to add resources and streamline processes to help keep people moving, including new kiosks at major airports including Toronto Pearson and hiring more than 700 student border officers for the summer.
Valérie Glazer, communications director for Mr. Alghabra, said in a statement that delays at airports are “completely unacceptable.” She said Ottawa is meeting with airports, airlines and relevant government agencies to find solutions to address bottlenecks. Ms. Glazer said the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has hired more than 1,000 new screeners in airports.
“We are making progress, but challenges remain, particularly for travellers facing flight cancellations and issues with baggage services.”
She said Mr. Alghabra met with the chief executive officers of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and WestJet last week, and the CEO of Air Canada Monday to discuss the problem.
When it comes to the app, travellers are divided. Payman Parseyan, an Edmonton-based oil and gas project manager, said he has travelled internationally more than 50 times since downloading ArriveCan last year. He said he is “puzzled” as to why Canada still uses it, given that border agents have only asked to see the app on his phone about one-third of the times he’s returned to Canada.
“It’s been fairly infrequent that I’ve been checked and I’ve landed back in Canada through Pearson [Toronto], Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal. It just seems to be hit or miss whether the CBSA officer is going to ask for the ArriveCan app or not,” he said.
“From my perspective, the app is completely useless.”
Alex Chauran, a mother of two from Port Moody, B.C., said she feels like she is one of the few supporters of the app. She crosses the land border in Surrey, B.C., about eight times a month to take her children to see their father in Washington. She said she has found ArriveCan useful because it simplifies the documentation for her children, who were vaccinated in the U.S. and only have American vaccine certificates, to come back into Canada.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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