Passenger flow at Canadian airports is already at 2019 levels during peak times, though closer to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic volumes overall, experts say.
“This is going to be with us all summer,” said Helane Becker, an airline analyst for investment firm Cowen.
“Almost every airline encouraged people to retire early or take leaves. And those people that retired early maybe don’t want to come back to work,” she said of airline employees.
“It’s hard to rebuild off those lows.”
Some pilots have not yet had their licences renewed, while positions with ground crews and baggage handling remain unfilled — or quickly vacated — due to low wages and stressful work conditions, unions say.
Government agencies have been on a hiring spree for airport security and customs, with 1,000-plus new security screeners in place since April — though not all have clearance to work the scanners — according to the federal Transport Department.
Air Canada has hired more than 2,000 workers at airports and more than 750 in customer service centres this year for a payroll surpassing 32,000 — 93 per cent of 2019 levels.
“The airlines also used the pandemic to eliminate aircraft types from their fleet, and to ground and retire their oldest aircraft. It’s hard to bring these aircraft back once you park them without doing a lot of maintenance,” Becker added.
“As demand continues to surge, we’re basically looking at an inability for the airlines to easily accommodate it. And I think that’s true worldwide.”
In a memo obtained by The Canadian Press, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau warned staff on Wednesday night that “this Canada Day weekend will be difficult.”
The schedule streamline likely won’t have the airline “see the full benefit until the latter part of July,” he said.
In an email to passengers the same evening, Rousseau apologised for cancellations and “customer service shortfalls” but also said the flight reduction stemmed from strains on the “global aviation system,” calling them “unprecedented and unforeseen.”
Since January, Canada’s two biggest airlines or their affiliates have made up five of the top seven airlines for proportion of flights delayed, according to FlightAware.
WestJet’s Swoop ranks No. 2 at 50 per cent and Air Canada sits in seventh at 43 per cent. Regional subsidiary WestJet Encore, Air Canada Rouge and Jazz Aviation fall in between.
The swelling crowds at international arrival areas prompted the Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s fire chief to issue a directive that warned of a potential “hazard” caused by clogged exits and “life safety concerns.”
“Passenger congestion in the Arrival Transfer level of Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 continues to exceed acceptable levels at certain times, which is due in part to some air carriers not following the Hold Procedure that is in effect for the purpose of maintaining safety in the terminal buildings,” warned Todd Aitken in an order dated June 23 and obtained by The Canadian Press.
On top of bottlenecks at security and customs checkpoints, Air Canada continues to point to limitations on the number of flights “imposed by air traffic control in both Canada and the U.S. that force airlines to make last minute cancellations.”
And WestJet said in a news release that it has stabilised its operation “to prevent reactive cancellations.”
“However, there remain significant operational challenges across the Canadian aviation ecosystem that can fall outside of our control, contributing to delays.”