TORONTO — The crystal ball that everyone wished for during the pandemic would sure come in handy right now, as questions persist about the readiness of Canada’s biggest airport, and airlines, heading into the busiest travel season of the year.
With the Victoria Day long weekend just ahead, and with the school year wrapping up in just six weeks, this next stretch of spring and summer travel will be the true test of lessons learned, or not, from the chaos of 2022.
For travel advisors who have worked with clients to fulfill their long-awaited travel dreams after years of pandemic restrictions, it’s personal.
Robert Townshend, President and Founder of Total Advantage Travel & Tours in Toronto, says: “I had a group of 40 kids, all members of a local soccer club going to Madrid last summer to compete in a competition, and they had a major flight delay. When they finally left, they were advised by the captain 30 minutes prior to landing that they had to leave Pearson without any baggage at all on the flight.
“He told the passengers, ‘We either had to leave without baggage or cancel the flight due to crew rest limitations so I made the decision to leave without baggage’. Can you imagine the soccer club arriving there without their uniforms or equipment? It was the biggest letdown for a group that had this planned a year in advance! They didn’t get their luggage until day 5.”
Townshend says he’s hearing from a lot of clients who are concerned about air travel arrangements in the months ahead, especially out of Pearson. “A lot of people are concerned about flying this summer. In particular they don’t want a repeat of what happened last summer. There were a lot of flight delays last summer due to crew shortages and many other delays due to lack of baggage handlers.”
“LAST SUMMER WAS CHALLENGING”
With so many new entrants, Canada’s not lacking for airlines, but labour shortages persist. The scarcity of workers continues to impact airports too. And Canada’s airlines and airports all point out that not every delay is within their control. The National Airlines Council recently released a report calling on Ottawa to implement “shared accountability” in aviation, with the goal of smoother travel – and across-the-board responsibility for flight disruptions.
Last summer, while many of Canada’s biggest airports struggled to keep up with demand, Pearson Airport was really in the crosshairs. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority has laid out the GTAA’s plans and strategies for making travel experiences this spring and summer at Pearson Airport as smooth as possible.
The GTAA’s self-service infrastructure means contactless check-in and boarding processes; a new partnership with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to deploy biometric e-gates, expediting customs clearance for travellers; and new digital technology at check-in, gates and baggage areas to replace the current generation of self-service tech.
The GTAA is also expanding hours for pre-booking spaces in security lines and putting it into service at every security screening point, and deploying enhanced digital mapping tools.
An upgraded baggage system featuring AI is supposed to anticipate overloading and detect potential breakdowns before they occur. There’s better staffing too, plus the GTAA has created a resource pool of employees and contracted staff who would be available to move bags by hand during irregular operations.
The GTAA has also bolstered staffing in critical areas such as bussing, baggage handling, and terminal operations, and recently announced the hiring of 130 team members.
A new customer-experience platform and dashboard provides real-time analysis and insights on key customer sentiment metrics, and new sensors and pulling screening data mean posted wait times for all agency checkpoints in the terminal and on the GTAA’s website.
Other initiatives include proactively managing the volume of flights coming into Toronto Pearson with partners on an hourly basis to ensure that the airport is capable of receiving and processing these incoming passengers quickly and efficiently.
When it comes to on-time performance, the GTAA has been meeting with airlines and their ground handlers and monitoring performance in areas such as check-in, baggage delivery, gate holds, ‘no-crew events’ and overall staffing levels.
The GTAA says its enhancements have already yielded tangible results, significantly improving the passenger experience through faster check-in and boarding processes, reduced wait times, and smoother baggage handling.
Luxury travel specialist Jennifer Gaskell, who runs Pink Palm Travel in Oakville, ON, says she’s had good experiences coming through Pearson, not just this year, but last year too: “I travelled multiple times internationally, and each and every time – moving through security departing Pearson went smoothly with no delays. And arriving back home, there were many times when I stepped off the plane and was at my car within 20 minutes.”
Gaskell says she only had a handful of clients who were impacted by delays at Pearson last summer. That said, “if I could describe the situation in one word, that word would be ‘unpredictable’,” says Gaskell. “This summer I intend on continuing to tell clients to arrive at YYZ three hours ahead of their flight. I also recommend that they stay up-to-date with airline schedule changes by downloading the appropriate apps and enabling push notifications so that they are receiving information as it becomes available.”
She adds: “One trend that I am noticing is that flight schedules are changing (often leaving earlier in the morning than originally noted when originally booked) so I still advise clients to make plans to be at Pearson with enough time to be able to relax at the gate. It’s the best way to be prepared.”
Judith Coates, travel advisor and founder of Wired for Travel (and one of the founding members of ACITA), tells Travelweek she’s travelled a lot since last summer, and says she’s noticed some “definite improvements” at Pearson. “Specifically in security, with the implementation of YYZ Express. Clients just need to book a time slot for going through security, and they bypass the lineup. I tell all my clients about it when I send them a ‘bon voyage’ email, and it makes me look like a hero,” says Coates.
“They have also streamlined the process at security once you actually go through it. I’ve noticed a huge improvement since last summer,” says Coates.
“The best advice I give clients is to use common sense. Arrive earlier than you normally would (for an international flight, arrive 3.5 – 4 hours before your flight time). And pack extra patience.”
This article appears in the May 18 edition of Travelweek, available now.