As delays and long lines continue to frustrate air travelers flying through Canada’s busiest airport, the travel and tourism has been calling on the federal government to ease the remaining COVID-19 travel industry measures as a way to speed up service and address the staffing shortages.
While many of the COVID-19 restrictions have been greatly lifted at the provincial and territorial level, many federal measures affect travel remain in place, including a vaccine mandate for air travelers, mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app for those entering Canada and randomized COVID- 19 testing on arrival.
Last week, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada announced that the restrictions at the border would be extended to at least June 30.
Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airports Council, says these health measures are “bogging down the system.”
“We’ve gotten back to regular travel volumes — we’re at 70 per cent now. It’s very difficult to fulfill these public health restrictions,” Pasher told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “We could manage it when we were in the middle of the pandemic and there weren’t many people moving, but now we’ve turned the corner and we really do need to move forward.”
The council is also calling on the federal government to lift the vaccine mandates for federally regulated employees, citing the widespread staffing shortages that have affected everything from baggage handlers to security screening and the Canada Border Services Agency.
“That would help us be able to move forward and hire some of these workers back that have security clearance and are already trained,” Pasher said.
Staffing shortages are also being driven by employees leaving the travel industry amid restrictions and work stoppages. Beth Potter, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, says 400,000 people have walked away from the industry in the last two years.
“This is a crisis situation as far as we’re concerned and we need to see it deal with very quickly,” Potter told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer of Air Canada, lifting it restrictions affecting travelers will help clear bottleneck at arrivals, and says the COVID-19 measures have made four times longer to get through customs and immigration.
“Before the pandemic it would take about 30 to 60 seconds per traveler to get through customs and immigration. Now, it’s taking four times longer than that, but they haven’t increased the number of staff four times,” he told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), which operates Pearson, has been called on the federal government to “urgently streamline or eliminate inbound legacy public health requirements at Canada’s airports.”
The situation is leaving travelers feeling frustrated, with some going online to vent about their experiences.
Former NHL player Ryan Whitney recently detailed his chaotic night of delays at Toronto Pearson International Airport in a video posted to Twitter on Mondaywhere he called Pearson Airport the “worst place on earth” after waiting in several lines for hours and dealing with multiple rescheduled flights.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has called the delays “unacceptable” and says he’s spoken with GTAA CEO Deborah Flint as well as Federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra and Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino about the need to address all of the issues plaguing the airport
“The situation at the airport is not acceptable as it presently is. It’s just not acceptable,” Tory said at a press conference on Tuesday morning. “This is not just a Toronto problem. (Pearson) is the gateway to all of Canada.”
“ADJUSTMENTS ARE TAKING PLACE”: ALGHABRA
Alghabra told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday that the federal government has been looking into adding resources and addressing airport bottlenecks. He also pointed to the recent hiring of 400 new CATSA screening officers.
“When we have an announcement ready to make, you will hear it,” he said.
Transport Canada says the 400 new screening officers will undergo “a more flexible onboarding program for these officers to be trained and working more quickly.”
But even with the faster onboarding process, Transport Canada says these screening agents are expected to be on duty by the end of June. Dee says the new staffing commitment may be too little, too late.
“He’s a little late to the party, and I’m not even sure if he’s bringing the right gifts,” Dee said. “Because 400 staff represents about six or seven percent of the staffing that they had in May and April. And the traffic that’s about to start hitting the airports is between 22 and 24 per cent more than it was in April in May.”
When asked about easing COVID-19 travel restrictions, Alghabra pointed to one recent change that now allows international travelers who have a connecting flight adjustments to be no longer subject to random COVID-19 testing, but would not commit to a timeline on further.
“We’ve made some adjustments, more adjustments are taking place,” he said. “Until I’m ready to announce them, I can’t tell you right now.”
Last month, Alghabra also suggested that out-of-practice travelers were driving the delays at security checkpoints.
“Taking out the laptops, taking out the fluids – all that adds 10 seconds here, 15 seconds there,” he told reporters.
“Travellers know what they’re doing. They know how to travel. They know what to expect when they get to the security carousels and what they need to do in order to get through them. I think that what we’ve got here is , again, a lack of staff,” she said.
The Conservatives have called on the government to revert back to pre-pandemic travel rules, with interim leader Candice Bergen calling the remaining restrictions “nothing short of disingenuous theatrics and astonishing hypocrisy” at a news conference on Tuesday.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said at a media availability on Tuesday that the airport delays were “no surprise,” adding that the Liberals should have made sure they had sufficient staffing levels at airports.
With files from CTV News Toronto and The Canadian Press
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