Airlines must be responsible for flight problems: transport minister, experts

After a series of nerve-wracking flight delays and cancellations, Jenn Bertschi made it to her grandmother’s funeral with minutes to spare.

Landing at Toronto Pearson from Calgary late Friday evening, she was told the 12:30 a.m. connecting flight to Ottawa for her, her toddler and baby had been cancelled, with a rebooking at 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

Bertschi, 31, had checked her stroller in order to collect it as she got off the plane, but was told it would show up in baggage claim before being directed to customer service.

“So we took it up to the third floor. They were like, ‘No, there’s nothing we can do about it. You must go down. “”

She was told the same thing downstairs, and the process repeated itself, with Bertschi carrying a large carry-on bag and an eight-month-old child, she said in a phone interview.

At 4 a.m., she asked an Air Canada manager to help her get her family and luggage to safety and eventually to the gate.

“He just stared at me and said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do because we don’t have strollers,'” Bertschi recalled, describing Air Canada staff as “useless and not very empathetic”.

“My toddler is too tired and running around and I’m trying to chase him away,” she said. “I was crying because I’m so overwhelmed.”

The elusive stroller, which did not leave Calgary on its outbound flight, had arrived in Ottawa by the time it landed there around noon Saturday. But his luggage had not passed Toronto. Bertschi rushed to a store to buy an outfit for her grandmother’s funeral.

“It was very, very close,” she said. “I will never fly Air Canada again. And I don’t think I will fly to Toronto.”

Air Canada said it understood the “disappointment and inconvenience” of interrupted travel, noting that severe storms derailed operations in central Canada on Friday evening.

“We are currently reviewing his case and will follow up directly with the client,” spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

Travellers, pundits and now Canada’s Transport Minister are casting an increasingly wary eye on airlines’ role in the travel turmoil at airports across the country, and many are calling on carriers to take ownership the problem more.

The federal government has scrambled to respond to the scenes of endless lines, flight delays and daily bustle at airports – particularly at Pearson – a problem the aviation industry has blamed on a shortage of federal security and customs officers at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) respectively.

“Airlines also have a duty. We hear stories of baggage problems and flight cancellations,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters Tuesday in Ottawa.

“We are making sure that the airlines live up to their end of the bargain.”

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the airlines, says they already have.

“Delays at Canada’s airports are not due to airline staffing, but rather to labor challenges at NAV Canada (which runs the country’s air navigation service), CATSA and CBSA, which have a cascading effect on flight schedules and resources across the ecosystem,” Suzanne Acton-Gervais said in an email.

John Gradek, director of McGill University’s aviation management program, says airlines have used Ottawa as a ‘scapegoat’ by scheduling more flights than they have staff or planes to supply , resulting in delays and cancellations.

“Airlines have shot themselves in the foot by really throwing a lot more capacity into the world than they have resources to manage,” he said.

“They’re very aggressive in the market, get a lot of traffic – planes often have a 90% load factor – and don’t have idle assets just in case things go wrong. And then it’s a formula for disaster when things start to go wrong.”

Passengers say they receive last-minute emails informing them of repeated delays, plane changes or new reservations scheduled days after the original departure time. The reasons cited run the gamut from pilots absent and baggage handlers busy with unplanned mechanical maintenance.

Problems in one part of the air transport pipeline can disrupt others, with overflowing customs areas preventing crews from disembarking, for example, or a lack of airline customer service agents exacerbating delays.

The federal airport security authority has hired more than 900 screeners since April, although many remain in training, Alghabra said. Ottawa has also suspended randomized COVID-19 testing of vaccinated passengers until at least June 30, following industry demands to process international travelers more quickly.

Not all industry watchers agree with the transport minister’s take on more than two months of turbulent travel.

“Airlines need to take responsibility, especially to take care of their customers. But it’s dishonest in trying to shift blame,” said former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee.

“No airline anywhere on the planet can staff or procure enough spare aircraft to make up for what amounts to nearly 90 days of delays caused by government service failures in Canada until here.”

Flights staged on the tarmac due to bloated customs halls can leave crew out of “duty time” – regulatory and contractual limits on hours worked – causing staff shortages. Meanwhile, a missed flight due to a long security queue or a delayed connecting flight can take hours to book, as agents supposed to cover the customer service counter are still working to board passengers. on another delayed plane. Similar problems confront baggage handlers.

“It gets very, very blurry,” Dee said.

Air Canada said it continues to hire, with 32,000 employees now on its payroll – near 2019 staffing levels – “and we are carefully managing 80% of our 2019 summer schedule,” Fitzpatrick said. .

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 21, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

— With a file from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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