Duncan Dee is a former chief operating officer at Air Canada. He was appointed by the Minister of Transport as the air transportation lead on a panel reviewing the Canada Transportation Act in 2016.
While most air travelers in Canada will likely want to forget their experiences from the spring and summer of 2022, governments, airports and airlines would be well-advised to spend the time, effort and resources required to conduct a thorough review of just how things went so off course, to ensure that what travelers experienced will never again be repeated.
Canadian travelers are patient. The vast majority follow the rules; they check in when recommended and they arrive at airports well-prepared. They also pay some of the highest user fees in the world. From the air traveler security charge to innumerable airport improvement fees, the federal government’s user-pay model means that Canadian travelers rarely get a break, even when the air transportation system lets them down.
While federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra repeatedly claimed to take the delays and disruptions seriously this summer, the results of his efforts were hardly encouraging. From May to July, Toronto’s Pearson Airport earned the distinction of being the world’s most delayed airport, according to data compiled by flight tracking site FlightAware. By August, Pearson had only managed to improve its ranking to become the second-most delayed airport on Earth. Hardly an achievement worth celebrating.
That embarrassing accomplishment meant that in addition to huge numbers of inconvenienced Canadian travelers, the worldwide coverage of Canada’s air travel challenges also inflicted a massive black eye on the country’s tourism sector. While Canada still has an attractive product to offer tourists, the hassles of getting here and getting around may well prove too great a barrier for a tourism industry that is still struggling to recover from the pandemic.
Despite the intense national attention and all the apparent effort, why were meaningful improvements so hard to come by?
The answer lies in the solutions that were pursued by the federal government. When airports, airlines and industry observers pinpointed federal airport service failures, such as traveler security screening or customs processing, as the reasons for most of the bottlenecks, the federal response was to reject solutions proposed by outside observers. Instead, the government focused all its efforts on attempting to change traveler behaviour, such as recommending three-hour check-in times, and by simply adding more airport security screeners and customs and immigration officers to address the bottlenecks. By not fixing the core process failures which caused the delays and disruptions, the government chose to apply band-aids when far more serious intervention was needed.
With the end of the summer travel peak, now is the time for the federal government to use the relative calm to better prepare itself for the travel peaks to come. Unless it believes it has limitless resources to continue to simply add more personnel to solve its problems, the government needs to switch gears and have a serious look at the governance models and processes that resulted in a period of sustained air-travel hell.
The government needs to be open to changing things that don’t work – for example, an air-traveler screening governance model that involves far too many players and blurs the lines of accountability. Instead, it should introduce new processes, such as expedited pre-board screening for trusted travelers, similar to the U.S. Transport Security Administration’s PreCheck program.
Canada also needs to regain its global leadership in the use of data and technology to expedite border clearance. For years, the Canada Border Services Agency pioneered the use of technology and data to introduce innovative ways of processing travelers entering the country. That leadership position has waned. Other jurisdictions, such as Britain, have since leapfrogged Canada and introduced innovative tools such as e-gates, where border authorities use passenger information to vet international travelers while they are in flight. On arrival, travelers are electronically screened and admitted without the need to even see a border officer. Toronto’s Pearson introduced e-gates this summer, but we need to see a wider adoption of this technology.
The government should also compel change-resistant agencies, such as the Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority, to more quickly adapt to new technologies. These might include computed tomography (CT) X-ray systems, which create rotatable 3D images of items packed in carry-on bags, and Liquid Explosive Detection Systems (LEDS) or trace detectors, which allow screeners to better identify restricted items and reduce the incidence of false alarms requiring secondary inspections.
While the summer’s travel disruptions are now largely behind us, complacency will ensure that the next disruptions are just around the corner. The key players involved in the air transportation system, especially the federal government, would be well advised to use the time before the next travel peak to learn the lessons from this past summer and implement the changes necessary to fix a broken system.
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