Toronto airport boss tries to rally staff amid continued disruptions

The head of Canada’s busiest airport sought to rally staff on Thursday, amid its continued disruptions and delays, but warned they might encounter more angry customers if the problems continue at Pearson International Airport. 

Deborah Flint, chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), urged hundreds of airport and airline staff to “please stay heartened” as they “continue to work through the challenges.” 

“For every single passenger that many of you see that may vent their frustration in front of you, or maybe they do it in social media, there’s another group of more passengers that have nothing but gratitude for each and every thing you and your colleagues do,” Flint said, to applause, at the staff event.

Her speech, which was audible from a public area of the airport, followed two months of troubles at the Toronto airport, where many passengers have faced flight delays, cancellations and hours-long bottlenecks at security.

The GTAA, which operates the airport, and airlines blame a lack of security screening staff, ongoing federal COVID-19 restrictions and limitations on aircraft movements.

A man walks past a screen showing flight information at Pearson on Thursday. (Esteban Eduardo Cuevas Gonzalez/CBC)

“There’s an expectation that we can just turn the wheel on and make things back to the way they used to be before the pandemic,” Flint said. 

But “travel today is just not the way it was before.” 

Her remarks came three days after former NHL player Ryan Whitney crystallized the frustrations of many travellers, taking aim on Twitter at both Pearson (“the worst place on earth”) and Air Canada after his flight to Boston was cancelled.

GTAA chief operating officer Craig Bradbrook told CBC News it was “heartbreaking” to read travellers’ posts about missed flights to their vacations and family reunions.

“This is not how we want to operate an airport; it’s not the level of service we aspire as an airport to provide to the traveling public,” he said. 

“A lot of effort has been put in over the recent weeks, and we are seeing improvements, and the wait times are reducing … There’s still a lot of work that still needs to be done, obviously, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

‘Quick’ and ‘calm’

International travellers arriving at Pearson on Thursday told CBC News it took just a matter of minutes to pass through customs and collect their luggage.

Meenu Salvan, who travelled from New York City for a wedding, described her arrival as “very calm.”

“I’ve visited worse airports, so you’re good on that part,” she said. 

But others who followed airport officials’ advice to arrive extra early for their flights ran into other problems.

A woman checks her phone after arriving at Pearson on Thursday. The Canadian Border Services Agency has urged travellers to complete their ArriveCAN form before flying to Canada, to avoid adding to delays. (Esteban Eduardo Cuevas Gonzalez/CBC)

Nathan Sterback got to the airport late Thursday morning, four hours before his flight to Edmonton. “They recommended three, but my work was around the corner, and I thought I might as well just wait here,” he said.

He then discovered the luggage check-in wouldn’t open for another 40 minutes — so he had to wait a bit longer to head through security.

A man gets a COVID-19 test at the airport on Feb. 1, 2021. About 2,000 travellers are randomly selected for mandatory tests at Pearson each day. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dina Sowers was randomly selected for a mandatory COVID test after flying in from Miami with her husband and father-in-law, to visit Niagara Falls.

The process was “very smooth,” but added an unwanted delay to their trip, Sowers said. “I just want to get to the car and go … but I understand the safety behind it.”

About 2,000 passengers are randomly selected each day from about 35,000 arrivals at Pearson. The GTAA and airlines have been calling for the federal government to end random testing since the start of this year.

“It continues to be very challenging,” said Bradbrook, adding that after months of discussions with the federal government, “arrangements are being made” for the testing to be moved off airport grounds in order to reduce congestion.

Other travellers expressed confusion about pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirements, and some said they found the ArriveCAN app challenging to use.

“We’re senior citizens, so we’re not techies … It’s a little overwhelming,” said Craig Metcalfe, who was travelling with his wife from Williamsburg, Va.

People check in at Pearson on May 12. The Greater Toronto Airport Authority has repeatedly appealed to the federal government to boost airport security staffing and scrap pandemic travel measures, which it says are causing the delays. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Airlines are also calling for the federal government to lift further pandemic restrictions, including scrapping vaccine mandates for aviation employees — a move they say would help boost the aviation labour force in order to speed up airport processing.

“We remain extremely concerned with the state of services provided by government agencies at our air borders and security screening points,” WestJet said in a statement, calling the problems at Pearson “unacceptable.”

The federal government last month announced it was fast-tracking training for 400 new security screening officers who would begin working at airports by the end of June, as well as adding more border services kiosks at Pearson.

In a statement on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency said airport processing times were exacerbated by multiple flights arriving at the same time, and by travellers who hadn’t completed their ArriveCAN forms before reaching the arrivals hall.

“The CBSA will not compromise the health and safety of Canadians for the sake of border wait times.”

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