Airports gear up for passenger surge as spring break tests their capacity
By Christopher ReynoldsIndustry Operations Transportation & Logistics
MONTREAL – Airports and airlines are preparing for a surge in passengers ahead of spring break after a year where the industry has struggled at peak times.
As March break kicks off in Ontario this weekend, travellers hope to avoid a repeat of the snaking lines, lost luggage and hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations that beset them last summer and during the winter holidays.
March is busy for the airline industry as provincial spring breaks fall throughout the month.
Severe staffing shortages and high worker attrition rates were among the factors conspiring to snarl air travel as the sector began recovering from COVID-19-related travel restrictions in 2022.
Last week, Toronto’s Pearson airport announced it would cap the number of flights during high-traffic hours in order to “flatten out” daily peaks and smooth the flow of passengers.
But even before March began, delay levels at Canadian airports had fallen short of some of their U.S. peers.
In February, the percentage of on-time departures in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal was well below that of airports in Seattle, Chicago, New York City and Boston, according to statistics from travel data company OAG.
“It doesn’t bode well, given that February is traditionally a quiet time of year, that in the case of the three largest Canadian airports somewhere in the vicinity of four out of every 10 flights were delayed,” said former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee.
Jessica Ng, who was waiting at Pearson’s Terminal 1 with her two children and husband Friday morning, said she left home hours earlier to navigate the snowy weather and build in enough time to go through check-in and security on their U.S.-bound flight.
But after pulling up they realized their Air Canada plane was delayed for about two hours because the incoming flight had also been held up.
“I have been delayed quite often by Air Canada before as well, so I am not surprised,” she said.
But fear of losing her luggage remained top of mind, so Ng resorted to an increasingly common tactic.
“I added an extra AirTag in my checked luggage, just in case if they are lost, then I know I can track my luggage,” she said, referring to Apple’s electronic tracker.
Ng said her confidence in Canadian airlines and airports isn’t very strong.
“But do we have a choice?”
Airlines and the two federal agencies responsible for airport security screeners and border officers say they are adequately staffed to handle the flood of spring travellers, though some hedged their confidence.
“While we are well staffed and prepared for the spring and summer travel seasons, it’s important to note that wait times at any airport can occur for various reasons, even when staffing levels are optimal, and can fluctuate throughout the day based on passenger volume/number of flights,” said Suzanne Perseo, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), in an email.
She said the agency has 8,456 screening officers and recruits at airports across the country, versus 8,284 screeners in 2019. At the country’s four largest airports – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary – staffing levels are at or above pre-pandemic levels, she said.
Nonetheless, Flair Airlines CEO Stephen Jones said last week that staff turnover is one of the biggest hurdles in an industry that requires substantial training and skills across much of its workforce.
“Pilots are heavily in demand, and mobile … The other part really is the airport labour force, whether it’s the baggage handlers or check-in – not so much attracting people necessarily, but the level of attrition,” he said at a press conference.
“Mechanics are another that’s very much in demand – the maintenance engineers.”
CATSA’s attrition rate for security screeners in the three months between July and September was about 10 per cent countrywide, though it’s “trending down,” the agency said.
Spring break travel demand is up 75 per cent year over year, according to travel search engine Kayak, which based its figures on searches rather than ticket purchases.
The most-searched destinations were Paris, New York City, London, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas.