Canadian air travel has faced significant challenges, including staffing and delays. Here‘s how to fix it

Monette Pasher is the head of the Canadian Airports Council. Here, she explains how air travel in the country got this bad and what’s being done to make it better.
Monette Pasher
The departures area of Pearson airport with about 100 people waiting to go to boarding gates.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada-July 5, 2019: Morning view of the Pearson International Airport during the morning. The place is one of the busiest airports in North America

Monette Pasher is the head of the Canadian Airports Council. In this role, she works with Canada’s airports, airlines, government, industry partners and other stakeholders to improve the air passenger experience and create opportunities for travel and trade.

For the last two years, air travel has lurched between shutdown and crisis mode. It’s not the experience that Canadians want or ought to have when they travel, and while there is still a lot to be done, many improvements are underway. Canadian airport leadership and employees are committed to restoring consumer confidence in air travel and earning the trust of passengers and the public.

Before the pandemic, our airports were a source of pride for our country. However, the COVID-19 pandemic created two significant issues that Canadian aviation is still working to make right: labour and revenue. Coming out of some very challenging years, our goal is to return to being a global leader in aviation by focusing on innovation and better service for passengers.

When air travel ground to a halt in 2020, our entire industry suddenly had too many workers. Seventy per cent of passenger traffic disappeared, and every aviation employer had to deal with the fact that they had large workforces and little revenue. Our airports had to cut a third of our workforce. Most airlines downsized to curb the financial loss: Air Canada furloughed 20,000 workers, WestJet cut 6,900 staff and Porter laid off nearly all of its 1,500 employees.

Nav Canada, the not-for-profit organization that hires and employs air traffic controllers, cut more than 700 jobs in 2020—14 per cent of its workforce. Before the pandemic, Canada was licensing an average of 1,116 commercial pilots a year, but that dwindled to 238 by 2022. Efforts to rebuild the pilot pipeline have been challenged due to the high cost of entry to train to become a pilot and the regulatory barriers of recruiting pilots globally. It’s such a long process for a pilot to get a Canada commercial licence: the Air Transport Association of Canada estimates that the country will fall 6,000 pilots short over the next two decades.

We continually said throughout the pandemic that this isn’t an industry that you can just flip on and off like a light switch. It takes time to build resilience in the workforce and get the system running like clockwork again. It’s not just about jobs, but our ability to run the system. When the federal government announced in March of 2022 that it was removing the requirement for pre-entry COVID testing beginning in April, it turned on the travel tap again—and our industry went from shutdown to significant demand almost overnight. But the industry didn’t have the employees.

Take air traffic controllers. We need a full staff of them right now, but Nav Canada lost its pipeline of new recruits. Training for this highly skilled workforce has to be done in person, and that was impossible under social-distancing restrictions. It takes two years to properly train and certify a new air traffic controller, and longer still for those working in more intensive airspace. Nav Canada is working hard to get back to capacity—it’s currently training 400 new air traffic controllers. But the shortages continue to cause delays, particularly in Canada’s largest cities.

When it comes to seat capacity, airlines are back to about 95 per cent of what they offered before the pandemic. But The supply-chain issues that are causing problems for every industry around the world also affect this one. There are anywhere between 60,000 and two million parts in a plane. Delays in replacing or maintaining them can cause airlines to work with fewer planes at any given time. When you combine that with the pilot shortage, it’s easy to see how airline schedules aren’t as resilient as they were before. They’re more susceptible to external events like severe weather, as we saw on Canada Day weekend.

However, the flip side of that is that every challenge has also become an opportunity to innovate, especially at the nation’s airports, which build the infrastructure our system relies on. Seven Canadian airports have implemented express security, which allows travellers to reserve a time at security, cutting down on time in line. Canada Border Services Agency now offers Advance Declaration, which lets passengers at the biggest urban airports prepare their customs information up to 72 hours before flying. Vancouver International Airport has created what’s called a digital twin—a virtual simulation of all of its integral processes—in order to test out adjustments without impacting airport operation.

At Toronto’s Pearson Airport, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority has adopted a system that uses artificial intelligence to monitor several kilometres of baggage-handling equipment for changes in function, sound and vibration. These changes trigger alerts, so staff can do preventative maintenance and reduce downtime by scheduling work when it’s least disruptive.

In May, at the Airports Canada Conference in Edmonton, we held our first “innovation day,” which we spent talking about other potential upgrades to how we track baggage. We met with startup companies who are exploring new ideas for our industry. One of them is a company called BagsID, which uses AI to take a picture of your bag from every angle to create something like a digital tag of your bag—and which would ultimately create a massive catalogue of bags, improving how accurately and easily they can be tracked. Airports are exploring proofs of concepts like this to find ways to make the baggage system tracking better for passengers.

The government has acted as well, by introducing Bill C-52. If passed, it will allow Ottawa to create regulations requiring airports and airport service providers to publish standards for passenger experience. Airports will have to publicly report their performance. Those standards could include how long it should take for a bag to arrive on the carousel, or the expected wait time to enter security screening.

Airports are essential national infrastructure and want to continue working hand in hand with the government. But this industry isn’t just waiting around for that legislation to be fully passed before tackling the issues causing disruption. More could be done to support the airport investment push. About 30 years ago, as part of a government austerity measure, airports were divested and put under the control of not-for-profit corporations, which now pay the government about $400 million a year in rent. The government waived or deferred rent for many airports through to the end of 2021, but we need more help.

Airports normally take on debt to improve infrastructure, and during the pandemic we had to take out an additional $3.2 billion in debt just to stay operational. We’re still paying that back, and we need to invest about $28 billion to keep up with required infrastructure maintenance in order to support the growth in travel. We don’t need significant government support during normal times, but we need it now to dig out from this once-in-a-century event. If we could work with Ottawa to reduce the burden of ground rent and reinvest that back into the infrastructure, Canadian travel would become more affordable..

Airports are the heart of our 21st-century economy. Canada can’t function at its maximum potential without them. The aviation industry is how our businesses move, how we go on vacation and how we connect with each other across this massive country. Together, we can achieve a new standard of responsibility, performance, and quality in the aviation industry, making Canadians proud.

With sufficient support, and the changes the industry is making, the experience of flying in Canada will be even better than it was before the pandemic. You won’t have to take off your shoes, pull out your liquids or show a boarding card four times along the way. Our industry has been innovating for a long time, and we will continue. The pandemic could actually get us there faster.