Fatima Sherefa, 17, had a rough night at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Aug. 6.
Her flight from Toronto home to Winnipeg had been delayed several times and then, just after midnight, it was cancelled.
Sherefa says Air Canada staff didn’t offer hotel accommodation for the night, and instead passed out yoga mats to stranded travellers.
Sherefa says she slept that night on one of the mats on the floor of a women’s nursing room at the airport.
“It was very terrifying, but also a new experience that I don’t think anyone should have to go through,” she said.
Sherefa is just one of thousands of air passengers caught up in the travel chaos that has plagued Canada’s major airports this summer. As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the spring, a sudden surge in travel led to mass delays and cancellations, and airport congestion.
On Friday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told the House of Commons transport committee that COVID-19 and a labour shortage within the aviation industry are to blame and that, with the government’s help, the travel chaos is dissipating.
“We are seeing significant improvements over the last two months,” he said.
But the chaos is far from over. Toronto’s Pearson airport, which had the most flight delays in the world for most of the summer, has only moved into second place, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. And, since May, more than 7,000 disgruntled travellers have flooded the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) with complaints related to flight disruptions.
The ongoing problems have raised questions about whether the government is doing enough to fix the problem, and if it should have done more before the chaos started.
“The federal government needs to think about, why did this happen?” said Walid Hejazi, an associate professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“We’re one of the richest countries in the world. It’s completely unnecessary.”
What went wrong?
As with many countries, Canada’s travel problems began when demand surged in the spring and many previously laid-off aviation workers didn’t return — causing staffing shortages.
But Canada won international attention this summer by topping the charts for flight delays. According to FlightAware, from May through July, Pearson had the highest rate of delays among the world’s 100 busiest airports and Montreal’s Trudeau airport came in a close second.
During that period, 53 per cent of flights departing Pearson and 46 per cent departing Trudeau arrived more than 15 minutes late at their destination.
Alghabra said Canada’s airports and airlines faced a steeper challenge compared to other countries, because the travel industry here virtually ground to a halt during the pandemic.
“The hole that they’re coming out of was deeper,” he said.
Alghabra says Ottawa was quick to address the problem.
“We took action from the beginning and we will continue to do so.”
But Tim Perry, a WestJet pilot and president of the Airline Pilots Association Canada, argues the government was slow to act.
Perry says he warned the transport committee in January 2021 — more than a year before the travel surge — that Ottawa, the airports and airlines needed to hash out a plan.
“There was no comprehensive co-ordination or restart plan for aviation,” he said. “A lot of what we see today was foretold then. And I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ but I told you so.”
It’s getting better
Alghabra also said on Friday that, with the government’s help, the situation at Canada’s airports is improving. He said measures such as the hiring of 1,700 screening officers and moving random testing offsite has helped ease congestion.
FlightAware’s latest data also shows the situation is improving — somewhat. Between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, 44.1 per cent of flights departing Pearson were delayed, dropping it to the No. 2 spot, globally. Montreal’s airport ranked seventh with 39.3 per cent of flights delayed.
But the union representing 15,000 baggage handlers, screening officers and airline mechanics says labour shortages remain a problem.
Dave Flowers, president of District 140 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, says several Canadian airlines or their third-party contractors are currently trying to hire thousands of ground crew workers at the country’s major airports.
But Flowers says the jobs are difficult to fill because wages, which range from $16.60 to $21 an hour, aren’t competitive enough in a tight labour market.
“I can go to Amazon today and they’ll hire me today off the street with benefits from day one and $21 an hour,” said Flowers. “Or you can work in –30 C on the ramp, or plus 40 C on the ramp, loading baggage for the same money.”
Flowers warns that if the positions aren’t filled soon, travellers should brace themselves for more chaos.
“If they don’t fix the problem before the peak of the Christmas period … you’re going to see this problem come right back again.”
Alghabra was questioned on Friday about what the government is doing to address the numerous passenger complaints that they’re being unfairly denied compensation by their airline.
Under federal rules, airlines only have to pay compensation — up to $1,000 — if a flight delay or cancellation is within an airline’s control and not required for safety reasons. Carriers must also cover accommodation costs for flight disruptions within their control.
Alghabra said the CTA is responsible for resolving passenger complaints and that the government has given the transport regulator an added $11 million to deal with the recent flood of grievances.
That cash injection was first announced in the April 2022 federal budget.
Alghabra also said it’s “unacceptable to see travellers sleeping on airport floors” because of delays or cancellations.
However, he didn’t announce any government action to prevent it from happening again.
Meanwhile Sherefa, the passenger, said she hopes the government comes up with a plan.
“Why does [anyone] have to sleep overnight in an airport just because a multi-billion dollar company can’t provide a hotel?” she said.