Canada's largest airport was embarrassed this week, caught ill-prepared to cope with ice and frigid weather in January. The decision to halt incoming North American flights on Monday night and Tuesday morning – a so-called "ground stop" – caused inconvenience for thousands of passengers travelling to or through Toronto's Pearson International Airport, and it took days to clear up the mess.
The economic impact of congestion and delays at the country's most critical transportation hub is growing – because, for all of its troubles, so is Pearson.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which runs Pearson, expects in 2014 to break last year's record of an estimated 36 million departing and arriving travellers. Pearson's passenger traffic has surged 19 per cent since the end of the recession in 2009, bolstered by steady increases in connecting travellers who use the airport as an international hub.
Pearson is about twice as busy as the next-busiest Canadian airport, Vancouver International, which ranks no. 8 on the list of world's best airports last year, as rated by Skytrax.
"As the airport grows in terms of importance, what is entirely normal to expect is that people's expectations of our performance also go up," Toby Lennox, the GTAA's vice-president of strategy development, said in an interview Friday. "I can't stop weather events from happening. I can, however, commit to making sure that we are doing everything we can to improve the response."
Pearson has managed to expand its customer base, despite criticisms of its efficiency and cost. Some Canadian-based pilots derisively refer to the GTAA as Go To Another Airport, and still scratch their heads over the decision to take on heavy debt to build the $3.6-billion Terminal 1 nearly a decade ago.
In the first nine months of 2013, the GTAA's net interest expenses and financing costs amounted to $292-million, or 36 per cent of total expenses.
Those interest costs are one reason airlines with flights arriving at Pearson have to pay among the world's highest landing fees. A departing passenger from Pearson has to pay a $25 airport improvement fee, on top of what consumers complain are high ticket prices that are in sharp contrast to discount fares available at U.S. border airports.
The AIF cost passengers $235-million in the first nine months of 2013, according to GTAA financial statements. Since 2006, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport has been steadily luring away some of the regional traffic, led by Porter Airlines Inc.
The GTAA, which runs as a not-for-profit corporation, has also been slow off the mark to generate more non-aeronautical revenue such as those from food outlets and retailers.
The country's busiest airport faces its share of challenges, notably congestion, delays and cancellations. The problems were on full display this week as cold, icy and windy conditions forced the GTAA to implement a Tier 2 ground stop at 11 p.m. on Monday, preventing North American flights from arriving for two hours. The GTAA re-instituted the ground stop from 5:55 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Tuesday, again halting inbound flights from North America. It has taken days for operations to recover, and it will likely stretch into early next week before a sense of normalcy returns.
While some critics believe that Pearson made the right call in ordering the ground stop, they say the time that it has taken to recover amid this week's pressure has left much to be desired, and communications by the airport and airlines need to be beefed up to keep passengers informed.
Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc., flew on British Airways from London's Heathrow Airport to Pearson. He landed on Wednesday afternoon, pleased to have arrived on schedule.
But it took nearly three hours to get his bags.
He recalls Heathrow getting criticized in the days before Christmas in 2010 because the London airport had to shut down due to a snowstorm, paralyzing operations. But Toronto is supposed to be at least be aware of the greater likelihood of snow than London, Mr. Kokonis said. "If things go wrong at Pearson, they go wrong at a lot of airports in Canada."
As the GTAA undergoes its review of what went wrong and how to improve operations for extreme weather, one difficult issue to tackle will be how much money to invest in equipment that would be able to better withstand colder temperatures, assuming the combination of woes this week is a rare occurrence, said Fred Lazar, a professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.
Rick Erickson, an aviation consultant who heads Calgary-based RP Erickson & Associates, said the GTAA has taken most of the heat, but it will take a group effort to develop a strategy to achieve swifter responses to weather-related troubles.
Terminal 1 is home to the largest hub in Air Canada's network while WestJet Airlines Ltd. has been expanding operations at Terminal 3. Canada's two largest airlines need to work in concert with the GTAA, baggage contractors and Nav Canada, which provides air navigation services, to become more efficient in the cold at Pearson, Mr. Erickson said. "The reality is the airport system is very complex," he said. "When the weather doesn't co-operate, planes stack up."