Airport nightmares won’t end this summer, experts say

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As Jenn MacDougall watched her three children sleeping on the floor of Pearson International Airport in the early morning hours on her way home to Nova Scotia, she got a notification that her flight was canceled — again. It was clear to her then that the trip to the Yukon wasn’t worth it.

Experts say these delays, cancellations and wait times will be sticking around for the summer.

“We do anticipate a bumpy summer. It’s a busy time,” said Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airports Council.

The desire for national and international travel has returned in full force, but airport and airline staffing levels have not. It’s causing flights to be canceled and delayed, and leaving many passengers frustrated.

Pasher said Air Canada and WestJet have made some headway, beginning with canceling some summer flights in hopes that they can get their other flights running smoothly.

Air Canada says flights out of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has had some of the biggest challenges. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

“We’re seeing steady progress in terms of hiring and bringing people back on at our airport, airlines ramping up staffing and have reduced schedules,” said Pasher.

“I think in weeks we’re going to see things smooth out even more.”

But with staffing levels still not back at where they were pre-pandemic, it will take some time before these problems are solved. Pasher said airlines are hiring more employees, but it takes time to train staff and get them security clearance.

Unexpected desire to travel

She said that while the industry certainly expected an uptick in travel plans this summer, its estimates were too low.

“All surveys and industry experts would have expected our industry to be at about 70 per cent [of pre-pandemic levels] this summer, so we expected a big ramp-up in demand,” said Pasher.

Travelers are experiencing staffing-related delays and baggage backlogs as travel ramps up post-pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We knew people wanted to travel and we [don’t] think there was anyone across our system that would have expected that we would have been at 90 or 100 per cent and back to 2019 levels…. We expected a lot of people wanted to travel, just not as intense as it was.”

Pasher said she personally thought it would take a couple more years before airlines saw this level of demand again.

The CBC reached out to Air Canada and Westjet for interviews. Both airlines declined and instead sent statements about their flight cancellations.

An emailed statement from Westjet said, in part, “as a result of consistent and proactive efforts, we have been able to stabilize our operation to prevent reactive cancellations however, there remains significant operational challenges across the Canadian aviation ecosystem that fall outside of our control , contributing to significant delays.”

Airports and airlines are still working to bring their staff back to pre-pandemic levels. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

“Our number one priority is ensuring our guests arrive safely to their destination, as on-time as the current aviation landscape allows for.”

Meanwhile, Air Canada said it was primarily flights from Montreal and Toronto that were affected by delays and cancellations.

“These will be mostly frequency reductions, affecting primarily evening and late-night flights by smaller aircraft, on transhipment and domestic routes. Our international flights are unaffected, with a few timing changes to reduce flying at peak times and even out the customer flow. ”

Persistent problem

Meanwhile, passengers such as MacDougall, whose trip home took her four more days than she expected, want airlines to follow through on their promises and compensate customers who have faced challenges like she did.

She’s still waiting to hear back from Air Canada.

Stacks of luggage.
Large piles of unclaimed baggage aren’t an uncommon sight at major airports. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

“I definitely want my money back that I spent,” said MacDougall. “They didn’t follow through with their end of this… They haven’t gotten back to me, so I don’t even know what they’re even thinking or anything; like I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Scott Keyes, founder of the website Scott’s Cheap Flights, and a frequent flyer himself, doesn’t expect to see smooth summer travel, he does see an end in sight. He hopes that once September hits, travel will slow down and airports and airlines will be better staffed.

“Things aren’t going to turn sunshine and rainbows overnight. It’s going to stay a turbulent, if you will, summer,” said Keyes.

“But things will improve, I think, drastically after Labor Day just because you won’t have as much strain on the system.”

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Paul MacInnis and Brianna Gosse.

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