Airlines must take ownership of the travel turbulence playing out at airports across the country, says Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
The federal government has been scrambling to respond to scenes of endless lines, flight delays and daily turmoil at airports — particularly Toronto’s Pearson airport — a problem the aviation industry has blamed on a shortage of federal security and customs officers.
“Airlines have a duty as well. We’re hearing some stories about luggage issues and flights cancelling. So cancellation — we want to make sure that the airlines as well do their part,” Alghabra told reporters Tuesday in Ottawa.
“We’re making sure that the airlines keep up their end of the bargain.”
John Gradek, head of McGill University’s aviation management program, says airlines have used Ottawa as a “scapegoat” while scheduling more flights than they have staff or planes to provide, resulting in delays and cancellations.
“The airlines basically have shot themselves in the foot by really throwing a lot more capacity at the world than they have resources to be able to handle,” he said.
“They’re being very aggressive in the marketplace, getting lots of traffic — airplanes are often at 90 per cent load factor — and don’t have any idle assets hanging around just in case things go wrong. And then that’s a formula for disaster when things do start to go wrong.”
Passengers receive last-minute emails informing them of repeated delays, aircraft changes or rebookings scheduled days after the original departure time. Reasons cited run the gamut from absent pilots and occupied baggage handlers to unplanned mechanical maintenance.
Kinks in one part of the air travel pipeline can affect others, with overflowing customs areas stopping flight crews from disembarking, for example, or a lack of airline customer service agents exacerbating delays.
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has hired more than 900 screeners since April, though many remain in training, Alghabra said. Ottawa has also suspended randomized COVID-19 testing of vaccinated passengers through at least June 30, following sector demands to process international travellers more quickly.
Not all industry watchers agree with the transport minister’s take on more than two months of travel turbulence.
“Airlines do have to take responsibility, particularly for taking care of their customers. But he’s being disingenuous in trying to shift blame,” said former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee.
“No airline anywhere on the planet can staff themselves or procure enough spare aircraft to make up for what is amounting to almost 90 days of delays caused by government service failures in Canada so far.”
Christopher Reynolds/The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022.