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Turbulence on the Ground at Toronto’s Pearson Airport

Byharjotsinghjaspal

Jul 16, 2022
Turbulence on the Ground at Toronto’s Pearson Airport
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The disorder at Toronto Pearson International Airport was visible from the sky.

The pilot on Ted Laking’s domestic flight into the city last week had some unwelcome news: The tarmac was too crowded for the aircraft to descend. It would be another hour of circling around before the runway was clear enough for landing.

The trip home on Monday wasn’t much better. Mr. Laking, a city councilor in Whitehorse, Yukon, was again greeted by signs of trouble before entering the airport. This time, it was the tail end of a line of travelers spilling through Pearson’s sliding doors.

“It feels almost like a postapocalyptic movie, just everybody for themselves,” Mr. Laking said. Security lines with unclear endpoints would snake into a new course at the request of airport workers. There was no room to sit and too little staff to handle the irate travelers. All this was happening against the dissonant soundtrack of flight-delay announcements.

“People were yelling at each other; the public was getting at each other’s necks,” Mr. Laking said. “You get to the gate, and it was just pure chaos.”

These extreme backlogs have resulted in several interventions from the federal government and thousands of flight cancellations in Canada, while airports around the world are grappling with the same sort of problems as travel volumes rebound.

[Read: Understanding the Summer Air-Travel Mess]

On Tuesday, the chief executive of London’s Heathrow Airport said staff shortages had constrained the airport’s capacity, leading it to limit passengers for the summer. Dublin Airport floundered under the pressure of surging travel demand across Europe in the spring, and thousands of flights at airports in the United States were canceled before the Fourth of July.

Sure, even before the pandemic, traveling through Canada’s major airports could be frustrating, and nostalgia for the Before Times may be coloring some of the current criticism on social media by frustrated passengers at Pearson airport.

My colleague, Catherine Porter, had a similar experience to many travelers at Pearson last month during a trip to Paris. (Canada Letter readers may have seen The Times’s announcement this week that Catherine is headed to her next assignment as a correspondent in Paris, swapping places with Norimitsu Onishi. Nori will join the Canada bureau in Montreal, where he grew up.)

While waiting for their delayed flight, Catherine and her son crammed themselves into a spot on the floor among throngs of people crowding the terminal as if it were Christmas Eve during a snowstorm. Garbage bins were overflowing, the bathrooms were overused and undercleaned, and the lines for food stretched 80 people long. A worker scooping out fried rice and chicken behind one fast-food counter told Catherine that she couldn’t take a restroom break because there was no one to replace her at the register.

Not even celebrity athletes are immune to being stranded at Pearson, by the way. The tennis star Nick Kyrgios and his girlfriend, Costeen Hatzi, were stuck there earlier this week on their way to the Bahamas.

[Read: Amid the Summer Flying ‘Meltdown,’ Add Lost Luggage]

Some relief may be coming, with a cost of fewer flight options. Air Canada, the country’s largest carrier, said it was canceling more than 9,500 flights in July and August to cope with the travel strain.

“Regrettably, things are not business as usual in our industry globally, and this is affecting our operations and our ability to serve you with our normal standards of care,” said Michael Rousseau, Air Canada’s president and chief executive, in a statement last month announcing the cancellations.

In April 2020, the largest Canadian airlines saw a 97 percent drop in passengers compared with the previous year, according to a recent report by Valeriya Mordvinova, an analyst at Statistics Canada, the national census agency. This decrease in air travelers eclipses the last record decline of 26 percent, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

And with the drop in airline customers came layoffs, including of flight attendants and pilots, and the slashing of contracts with firms outsourced to work in other airport operations such as security and baggage claim.

“Much of the Canadian problem is with the handling capacity by the airport,” said Tae Hoon Oum, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

There was a rapid increase in air travel demand in the United States, whereas Canada’s was more gradual leading up to this summer, he added. But many of the flight delays occurred because Canadian airports have lagged in rebuilding their operations.

“I thought that they would handle it better than what they did,” said Mr. Oum, who is also the president of the World Conference on Transport Research Society.

[Read: ‘A One-Hour Layover Is Not Enough Anymore’: A Flight Attendant’s Tips on Surviving Travel Now]

The summer travel disruption comes after flight cancellations derailed the winter holidays for thousands of people amid the spread of Omicron in December.

The specter of that winter’s coronavirus surge — and the current spread of the Omicron subvariant known as BA.5 — may leave some travelers wary of boarding a plane or being in an airport, where keeping physically distanced is not always possible.

On Thursday, while reporting on the rebooted coronavirus testing program at Canada’s major airports, I spoke to Marianne Levitsky, an adjunct lecturer at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and a certified industrial hygienist. Ms. Levitsky told me that she advised air passengers to use the nozzle above their seat to promote ventilation around them and to wear a respirator mask.

While in the United States, airlines can set their own mask rules, the Canadian government still requires masks for flights traveling from or within Canada.

The government’s random coronavirus testing program was temporarily paused last month to relocate it off airport grounds, a move meant to reduce wait times on arrival.


  • France is has a shortage of mustard. A heat wave in Alberta and Saskatchewan last year — another example of the extreme weather scientists say is linked to climate change — is partly to blame. Most of the brown mustard seeds used in French Dijon mustard come from those Canadian prairie provinces.

  • Random coronavirus testing for international travelers arriving at airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Toronto will resume on July 19.

  • If you prefer to skip out on international travel this summer, here’s a guide on what to see, eat and do in Toronto.

  • A turbine needed to operate a key Russian natural-gas pipeline in Germany was sent to Canada for repairs, and held up here over sanctions against Russia. But earlier this week, Canada agreed to return it.

  • Santa J. Ono, a biomedical researcher and the president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, was chosen to be the next president of the University of Michigan. Born in Vancouver and raised in the United States, where he is also a citizen, Dr. Ono will become the first Asian American leader of that university.


Vjosa Isai is a news assistant for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.


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