Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says Canada’s airport security agency is increasing its staffing, but that a lack of workers is not the main culprit for the unacceptable delays passengers are facing this spring.
Multiple airports are reporting extremely long lines at airport security and border screening checkpoints while passengers say they are being forced to wait for hours — and sometimes missing their flights.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority said last week that staffing challenges at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) were contributing to long lines at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
But Alghabra said Wednesday the security agency’s staffing is at 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels while flight volumes are still below 70 per cent, so that can’t be the main problem.
Other industry-watchers say it’s not about flight volume.
Big airlines see capacity at 70 or 75 per cent of 2019 levels, said John Gradek, head of McGill University’s aviation management program. But the number of passengers flowing through key hubs such as the Toronto and Vancouver airports is approaching pre-pandemic figures, he said.
“Air Canada and WestJet, they’re both basically operating significantly greater numbers of international flights,” many of which land at those two airports, he noted.
Domestic routes are ramping up too.
Air Canada is flying 14 flights per day between Toronto and Vancouver versus 12 per day in 2019. “And instead of having a Dreamliner with 200 seats, you’ve got a 777 with 350 seats,” Gradek said.
“There are a lot more passengers on those airplanes.”
Alghabra said out-of-practice travellers are causing delays at security checkpoints as Canadians shift back into travel mode after spending most of the last two years grounded by COVID-19.
“Taking out the laptops, taking out the fluids — all that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,” he told reporters.
Changing flight schedules have also resulted in large volumes of flights leaving and arriving at the same time, causing big bottlenecks at certain times of day, he said.
“They need to adjust for that … It wasn’t as pronounced as it is right now, the peaks and valleys.”
More last-minute bookings by passengers could throw another wrench in the turbine.
“CATSA used to rely on a six-month forecast when it comes to labour allocation. Now they need to rely on a 72-hour, 48-hour volume prediction. They’re adjusting,” Alghabra said.
“I’m confident the CEO understands the sense of urgency. I reinforced the sense of urgency to him on Monday.”
Gradek said more staff — both at security checkpoints and among airlines, which can comb the security queues for passengers with immanent departures and hustle them to the front — would ease the choke points.
Backlogs are especially likely to build in afternoon and evening, when a glut of international trips depart alongside more domestic takeoffs and touchdowns.
That challenge aligns with the security agency’s explanation for clogged airports.
“Prior to the pandemic, resources could be cross-utilized more efficiently between the transborder and domestic and international checkpoints due to staggered passenger peaks,” the agency said last week.
“As air travel recovers we are observing simultaneous peaks, which can result in passengers flooding more than one security checkpoint at a time, making the redistribution of resources to address these passenger volumes more challenging.”
Agency CEO Mike Saunders said staffing was a key reason behind the irksome delays.
“While the corporation’s third-party security contractors — who are responsible for providing the screening officer workforce — have been working to increase staffing levels, they are not immune to the recruitment challenges experienced by the broader commercial aviation industry and, indeed, many industries across Canada at this time,” he said in a statement.
By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2022.