Airlines, industry groups cheer Oct. 1 elimination of Canada’s remaining COVID travel measures 

“Things should get back to normal by Q4”: Aviation expert on airport delays

TORONTO — Much is being done to reduce delays at Canada’s major airports, which for the past few weeks have struggled to keep up with travel demand amid staffing issues.

Just yesterday, the federal government confirmed wait times are down thanks to several recent measures that include the hiring of nearly 900 CATSA screening officers, setting up additional kiosks at Toronto Pearson’s customs hall areas, and pausing all mandatory random COVID-19 testing at Canada’s airports for vaccinated travellers. And even though the federal government says the recent suspension of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for domestic and outbound international travel on planes and trains was not made in response to the delays at airports, it is believed to help streamline operations and ease congestion during peak hours.

But is all this enough? Can more be done to prevent further delays, especially now that unvaccinated travellers are also permitted to board a plane in Canada?

Travelweek checked in with John Gradek, Faculty Lecturer and Academic Programs Coordinator, Supply Chain, Logistics and Aviation Management at the School of Continuing Studies at McGill University, to get his take on why airport delays are happening in the first place, whether recent measures will have an immediate impact, and what more can be done to avoid a similar situation in the future.


Travelweek: In your opinion, what are the various factors that have been causing massive delays at Canada’s major airports, particularly Toronto Pearson?

Gradek: “I think it’s an inability to effectively match the need for passenger processing capacity, based on airline schedules operating at Pearson, with the infrastructure and resources available at Pearson to process these volumes. Airlines have continued to increase the flow of passenger traffic through Pearson, with passenger volumes affecting outbound security clearances as well as international arrival volumes outstripping the throughput capabilities of border protection staff.

“While a number of initiatives to increase staffing levels at both functions has been initiated, the hiring, training and retaining such staff is proving problematic for airlines, airports and service providers. So short-staffing and increased volumes are root causes of the chaos we see at Pearson.”


Travelweek: Do you think these delays are a one-time-only problem brought on specifically by the pandemic? Or have they been a long time coming?

Gradek: “The pandemic caused significant staff reductions across every element of the aviation industry, affecting airport, airline staff significantly. The length and depth of such a downturn has been extraordinary, and hopefully to be rarely seen again. The fact that staff reduction caused a permanent loss of trained and qualified staff to exit the industry is significant, and hiring new staff in the midst of an industry-wide hiring crisis is not helping. Until such time when the major players staff themselves to the needed levels to support passenger demands, Pearson will continue to have congestion problems.

“I suggest that by the start of the fourth quarter of 2022, things should get back to normal and congestion issues will have been addressed with adequate staffing and streamlined protocols.”


Travelweek: What would your quick-fix plan include?

Gradek: “Quick fixes can indeed address the congestion problem. Reducing the work content of border protection (CBSA) staff will increase the processing time, thus reducing passenger queues. Increased staffing levels will open up more queues while airlines rationalizing their flight schedules to reflect a lower volume of passengers will address the absolute volume of passenger in the facility.”


Travelweek: Do you think temporarily suspending random COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated travellers will immediately help the situation?

Gradek: “The suspension of post-arrival rapid COVID-19 testing will have very little impact on reducing the queues and wait times that passengers are incurring, waiting for border security processing. This random-selection testing process was conducted beyond the border control points, and very little queue impact would be achieved.

“However, the removal of vaccine mandates and the need to produce the ArriveCAN app will reduce the processing time by CBSA border protection staff, also improving queue length and size. Plus, the removal of the vaccination requirement for domestic travel will also reduce the contact time currently at security processing stations that perform vaccination checks.

“The sum of these removals should significantly reduce queues, but the odds are that passenger service disruptions will continue. Airlines have not fully staffed their airport functions, so baggage delivery delays and passenger service assistance in the terminal will remain problematic for a few months yet, as airlines attempt to hire and train staff.


Travelweek: When the government first announced the suspension of the vaccine mandate, Minister Leblanc said that the decision had little to do with shortening wait times at airports. But do you think this will have an immediate impact at airports anyway?

 

Gradek: If you look at the root causes of the congestion at Pearson and look at the impact of dropping the vaccine mandates, Minister Leblanc is partially correct. For international arrivals, there remains the need for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated passengers to have a PCR test done 72 hours prior to their flight to Canada, and to present such proof of test results to CBSA staff upon arrival. This is additional workload compared to what was in place pre-pandemic, thus lengthening the time to process passengers and lengthen the queues from international arrival flights, and thus the holding of international passengers on international arrivals.

On domestic departures, the removal of the need for vaccination proof for domestic passengers will reduce the workload and allow for quicker passenger processing, particularly at security checkpoints. So less of a lineup for departures domestically and probably more congestion and wait times for international arrivals.


Travelweek: On the flip side, critics say wait times may be even longer now that unvaccinated travellers can travel as well. Would you agree?

Gradek: I agree that there will be an increase in air travel demand, particularly domestically, with the removal of the vaccine mandate. With close to 7 million unvaccinated Canadians having been deprived of air travel, we can expect a surge in domestic demand, and a lesser surge in international travel as entry restrictions and proof of vaccination remain in place for a number of countries. There are a couple of mitigating factors on international travel demand, such as lengthy passport processing times, that may reduce international air demand through the short-term (summer 2022). Thus, my opinion is that domestic travel will be the beneficiary of this mandate removal.

There really isn’t very much that the governments can do to restrain such demand. It will be up to the airlines to decide how they would like to meet this increase. Typically, airlines have used higher airfares as a means to manage demand, with summer peak fares typically at much higher levels than off-peak. Since 2020, airlines have not experienced much in terms of peak demand, so they may be a little rusty in proactively using price to manage demand. But the rust will disappear quickly as flights reach 90+ percentage load factors and we start to see more significant deplanements due to oversale, and the resultant out-of-pocket payments for inconvenienced passengers.

The end result will be less empty seats on domestic flights, higher fares for July-September domestic travel, and fewer ultra-low-cost-carrier base fare sales – unless a strategic all-out far war breaks out among Flair, Lynx and Swoop for the domestic deep-discount markets, something that might yet happen.