Hours-long wait times at Toronto Pearson Airport could deal a major blow to the post-COVID-19 recovery for Canada’s largest city, a group of business leaders warned Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference, they also highlighted issues with customs and security, and called on the federal government for more hires at the airport, a streamlined ArriveCan app, and the removal of random testing for COVID-19.
“Over the past week alone, more than 100,000 people — 50 per cent of travellers moving through Toronto Pearson — suffered extensive delays,” said Jan De Silva, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
“International passengers are being forced to wait for up to three hours, sometimes inside the aircraft they flew in on, because of longer processing times by customs officers.”
According to De Silva, these challenges reflect staffing shortages and outdated pandemic policies that create unnecessary delays.
Officials say long security lines at several Canadian airports in recent times are the result of a shortage in staff.
Christopher Bloore from the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario says processing by government agencies at the airport that before the pandemic took on average 30 seconds for arriving passengers, now takes up to two minutes.
“These health checks happening at airports are obsolete and contribute to these never-seen-before waiting times,” Bloore said.
“These public health measures could be immediately lifted to address issues at Canada’s largest airport. Monitoring for potential COVID-19 variants can be accomplished through proven scientific options, such as community wastewater testing, which is widely supported by the medical community.”
Bloore is worried that if quick actions are not taken to fix the problems at the airport, Toronto could lose its international stature, depriving businesses of the money they count on from international business travellers and tourists.
“The federal government needs to step up and fix this problem. There can be no more delays,” he said.
‘Won’t compromise the health and safety of Canadians’: CBSA
A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) would not comment on staff shortages, saying the agency does not share staffing information for individual ports of entry.
Rebecca Purdy says while the CBSA takes appropriate measures to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to adequately manage the border, the convergence of flights arriving at the same time, combined with the border health measures can increase the overall processing time.
“This means travellers to Canada could experience longer border wait times,” Purdy wrote in an email to CBC News.
“The CBSA will not compromise the health and safety of Canadians for the sake of border wait times. The agency thanks travellers for their collaboration and patience.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says COVID restrictions and health requirements are continuously reviewed to ensure that they are current and relevant to protecting the health and safety of Canadians.
The agency says there are various reasons for the current backlogs for passengers at Pearson airport.
“As traveller volume increases, the government of Canada has worked to build efficiencies and additional capacity at the border. However, travellers should still be prepared for potentially face longer wait times and delays,” the agency said in an email.
“We are aware that during peak times, wait times for testing at the airport can be longer.”
The PHAC says travellers arriving by air are encouraged to complete their ArriveCAN submission and pre-register with testing providers prior to travel as a means to expedite their entry into Canada.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) told CBC News on Thursday that at the beginning of the pandemic, it had almost 7,400 screening officers across the country. That number is down to approximately 6,500 active and pre-certified screening officers today.
“CATSA is targeting the hiring of approximately 1,000 screening officers this year, in addition to over 1,200 recalled in 2021,” spokesperson Suzanne Perseo wrote in an email.
“Hiring efforts were initiated last year, we have provided additional classrooms to support more training capacity. Training and certification can take weeks. We have also been placing pre-certified screening officers in the screening queues and on the screening lines in non-screening functions to optimize resources.”
Toronto can’t afford this. Canada, and we, can’t afford this.– Edwin Frizzell, general manager, Fairmont Royal York, Toronto
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) says there is an urgent need to ensure that both CBSA and CATSA at Toronto Pearson are staffed to support passenger loads and recovery.
“We therefore are pleased that the federal government has established industry working groups and ask that they move swiftly to develop solutions for a successful summer,” spokesperson Rachel Bertone wrote in an email on Thursday.
Edwin Frizzell, general manager of the Fairmont Royal York, says Toronto provides visitors with their very first impression of Canada, adding that “right now, our first impression is sadly letting us down,” because of the many challenges guests and visitors are facing at Pearson Airport.
“My concern is that this poor first impression will keep people from returning to Canada or stories of bad experiences here at Toronto’s airport will force travellers to consider other locations and destinations instead,” he said.
“Toronto can’t afford this. Canada, and we, can’t afford this.”
Frizzell says the federal government should urgently take action to address the challenges currently plaguing airports across the country.
“From what I hear from my counterparts across the country, this is not an exception. Instead, long wait times and issues at airports are hampering traveller experiences in Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary,” he said.
Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), says the association has received reports of travellers cancelling their reservations or deferring travel because of the airport delays. This, she says, creates a further obstacle to recovery efforts.
She says the future of Toronto’s tourism and tourism industry is at stake.
“Our sector has suffered enough,” Paradis said.
“It’s time for the government to address resource shortages and finally remove legacy COVID-19 policies that are only slowing us down.”