Pearson Airport delays improvement but CEO refuses to give timetable for return to normal capacity

Deborah Flint, President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) provides an update on progress at Toronto Pearson Airport in Toronto on Friday, August 5, 2022.Nathan Dennett/The Canadian Press

Deborah Flint, president of the company that operates Toronto Pearson Airport, assured travelers that delays, cancellations and baggage losses that have plagued Canada’s largest air hub are improving, but declined to give targets or specify when operations would return to normal.

Ms Flint, chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said labor shortages at airport agencies, contractors and airlines were improving, and airport staff were working with all parties to better manage schedules, including canceling some flights. On-time performance has improved to 44 percent from 25 and 35 percent since the start of the busy summer travel season, she told reporters at a news conference on Friday.

But it did not provide a target or deadline, dashed the hopes of travelers hoping for a smooth journey through the airport. “There is still work to be done to get Pearson back on the right track,” Ms Flint said.

She pointed to the complexity of the airport, which was home to 400 companies and 50,000 people before the epidemic stopped most flights. Activity at the airport has fallen to 25 percent of normal sizes due to the pandemic, and a significant portion of the workforce has been laid off. The travel lull in Canada has been overtaken by many countries due to vaccine requirements and other restrictions that have been in place for longer.

With the pandemic easing and some restrictions lifted, in late spring airlines began serving about 80 percent of their usual schedules.

“Pearson has gone from being one of the most closed airports in the world to one of the busiest,” she said. “We didn’t go from zero to 100. We went from zero to 500. Our pit was longer and our climb into the summer was steeper than other airports.”

She referred to the “shared responsibility” of government agencies and companies that work with aircraft and passengers. These include Canada’s Departments of Transportation, Public Health and Safety, NavCanada Air Traffic Control and US Border Services, as well as airlines, caterers, baggage and fuel contractors and other businesses. However, Ms Flint said she was responsible for ensuring that all groups were working so passengers were not upset.

“I take responsibility,” she said. “I am deeply committed to making sure passengers have a great and reliable experience. As I have led the airport to be one of the best in the world, I am committed to making sure that we return to that position.”

Airlines voluntarily reduced their schedules, prompted by airport officials. Air Canada has canceled about 10 percent of its summer schedule, mostly in Toronto and Montreal, to reduce congestion. Executives at Canada’s largest airline said last week that they had tried to prepare for the surge by bringing 90 percent of its workforce back to operate 80 percent of its pandemic progress schedule.

WestJet Airlines has also cut its schedule, operating about 80 percent of its regular flights. “We recognize that the travel environment remains challenging and we sincerely apologize to our guests for any disruption we have caused to their long-awaited travel plans,” WestJet Director of Operations, Diedrick Benn, said in a statement.

The problems come even through passenger volumes not yet at pre-pandemic levels.

On July 31, security personnel at Canada’s eight largest airports screened more than 156,000 people, up from 68,000 on the same day in 2021, but less than 176,000 checked on July 31, 2019.

Richard Bannigan, 80, recently spent a night in Toronto Pearson because the driver who paid him to pick him up couldn’t find him in this mess.

Mr. Bannigan landed in Pearson on an Air Canada flight from Dallas-Fort Worth just after 9pm on July 6. The plane stopped operating for an hour on the tarmac before stopping at the gate. “It was as far from the access section as it could get, a very long walk,” said Mr Bannigan, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force pilot with heart problems. “No wheelchairs, no workers, no carts, anything. People had to carry their hand luggage across this long, long lane. There were moving sidewalks, but half of them didn’t work.”

“So we finally get to the arrivals and there is an enormous long lineup. Hundreds and hundreds of people with all their bags and all crammed together, with absolutely no social distancing,” Mr. Bannigan said by phone from his home near Midland, Ont.

After another 60 minutes, he passed through customs and entered the main lounge. He saw a lot of people sleeping on the floors and chairs. There was no soap in the bathrooms, and many pay phones ask for coins he doesn’t have, so he couldn’t contact his delivery service. Outside, the pickup aisles were a “total chaos,” clogged with parked cars honking in the dark. His driver was nowhere to be seen. “At this point I was completely exhausted,” he said. “I found a wheelchair and sat in it.”

He finally got a ride home at 9 a.m. the next morning. ‘It seemed to me that this was not necessary at all.’ ‘It was very clear that there were not enough people running the place,’ said Mr. Bannegan.

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