MP says Ottawa underestimated Canadians’ desire to travel again after pandemic

MP says Ottawa underestimated Canadians’ desire to travel again after pandemic

A member of Parliament says Ottawa may have underestimated Canadians’ desire to travel when planning for a return to normal following the end of most pandemic restrictions.

Airlines and airports have been grappling with a surge in customers this summer, compounded by staffing shortages affecting carriers and federal agencies.

As a result, travellers have experienced widespread flight cancellations, baggage delays and lengthy lineups, particularly at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. 

Last month, due to a glitch, the ArriveCan app instructed about 10,200 travellers to quarantine for ten days when they didn’t have to.

Annie Koutrakis, the parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, told reporters in Calgary on Tuesday that planning to return to normal fell a bit short.

“We did anticipate. Yes, the planning did start. Unfortunately, we underestimated the desire to which everyone wanted to travel, and everyone wanted to travel at the same time,” Koutrakis said.

“The data shows us that we were not anticipating everybody to start travelling to the degree they did. It’s not like we were waiting and not planning behind the scenes to be ready for it. It’s just more could have been done.”

Koutrakis said this is the first time the government has gone through a pandemic, and lessons must be learned.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra was grilled about the delays at a House of Commons committee last week.

Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman asked him if the federal government bears any responsibility, and Alghabra replied: “I blame it on COVID.” He pointed to labour shortages as the primary contributor to the delays.

Koutrakis said data indicates that abandoning the ArriveCan app would increase delays and bottlenecks, and removing the mask mandate would not reduce wait times.

A statement from Alghabra’s office said the government recognizes the airport delays are frustrating for travellers and he has met with airlines, airports and the public to address concerns.

It said progress is being made with the number of cancellations dropping. In addition, over the second week of August, less than two percent of international arrivals at Toronto were held on the tarmac due to congestion as compared to 18 percent during the first week of May.

It adds 87 percent of passengers are waiting less than 15 minutes to go through security, up from 63 percent in early May.

Koutrakis announced nearly $2 million to help the Calgary International Airport improve current and future flight scheduling and connection times between flights and establish dedicated corridors to enable physical distancing.

There were no representatives from any of the airlines at the announcement.

However, Bob Sartor, the president and CEO of the Calgary Airport Authority, said the carriers are suffering through the same problems in hiring enough staff.

“The reality is, they are facing, to a greater extent, issues that we face at (the Calgary airport) and that is the need for additional staffing,” Sartor said. “They did what we did as an airport and they reduced significantly their staffing during the pandemic.”

Parliamentary Secretary for Transport and Liberal MP Annie Koutrakis, centre, speaks as Calgary Airport Authority CEO Bob Sartor, left, and Liberal MP George Chahal look on during a funding announcement in Calgary on Aug. 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

Sartor said that recertifying pilots and getting staff security clearances could take months.

“If we ever have one of these black swan events — and I pray we do not — we need a consolidated aviation sector restart plan.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2022.