Flyer beware: Holiday travel could be messy this season

A passenger makes their way through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The percentage of cancelled and delayed flights at Canadian airports has declined since the summer, but remains elevated.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Air passenger volume this holiday season is poised to reach prepandemic standards, but whether Canadians are in for the normal level of peak travel stress or a repeat of the mayhem that unfolded across the country’s major airports over the summer remains unclear.

Despite a slew of backlog-busting initiatives by airport authorities, some experts still see a significant risk of widespread cancellations and delays.

John Gradek, co-ordinator of McGill University’s aviation management program, points to a “very real possibility” of holiday flight cancellations if airlines’ travel schedules turn out to be more ambitious than what airports can handle.

While the percentage of cancelled and delayed flights at Canadian airports has declined since the summer, it remained elevated even during the slower fall travel season, according to data from flight-tracking service FlightAware.

At Toronto Pearson International Airport and Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, the share of flights leaving the gate more than 15 minutes late decreased from around 50 per cent in the summer to about 35 per cent in the period between the start of September and late November, according to FlightAware.

The rate of cancelled flights at the two airports was 1.8 per cent and 1.7 per cent. In the U.S., a rate above 1 per cent is considered “problematic,” as it’s the level at which the impact of passengers missing connections starts to have widespread ripple effects, said Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for FlightAware.

The share of flight cancellations throughout the U.S. was around 1 per cent and the portion of delayed flights was about 17 per cent between Sept. 1 and Nov. 23 – a period that includes the busy travel period in the run-up to the country’s Thanksgiving holiday.

In Toronto and Montreal, operators of the two cities’ major airports say they’ve been working with airlines and the government to ensure smooth travel through the holidays.

At Pearson, passengers can now check online dashboards for real-time data on wait times at airline check-in counters, security, customs and baggage delivery at arrival. There is also YYZ Express, where travellers can book a spot in line and enjoy expedited security screening.

But Mr. Gradek’s advice to Canadian travellers is to still plan for disruptions. He recommends sticking to carry-on luggage only, if possible, and dropping a wireless tracking device in any checked bags in case they are delayed or misplaced. Purchasing trip interruption and cancellation insurance is also a must, he said.

Mr. Gradek’s top concern is the volume of flights Canadian airlines plan to operate during the holiday period. The Canadian government hasn’t been as aggressive as U.S. authorities in putting pressure on the airlines to contain their flight schedules, he said.

While American passenger volumes ahead of Thanksgiving roughly matched prepandemic traffic, according to U.S. government data, the country’s major carriers were operating fewer flights compared with the same period in 2019, with major airlines opting instead to fly bigger planes, Ms. Bangs said.

Canada, by contrast, is seeing a significant increase in air-travel capacity, thanks to growing competition on domestic and U.S. routes, according to Mr. Gradek.

For example, Mississauga-based Canada Jetlines Operations Ltd., which made its inaugural flight in September, now flies to Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. The airline joined a crowded field of smaller carriers that also includes Calgary-based Lynx Air, which launched in April, and Edmonton-based Flair Airlines, which has been aggressively expanding its fleet and list of destinations.

That added supply means more choice and cheaper airfare for consumers, but also more planes flying through the country’s already strained airports, Mr. Gradek added.

Also, while staffing levels have improved since the summer, airport labour shortages remain a concern. The issue could still “impact the delivery of services throughout the passenger’s journey at the airport,” said Eric Forest, a spokesperson for Aéroports de Montréal, about Montreal’s Trudeau airport.

As the winter progresses, there is also an elevated risk of staffing challenges arising from airline personnel calling in sick owing to the current surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and COVID-19, Ms. Bangs warned.

And in Canada, in particular, poor weather conditions could also test both airlines and airports, which are relying on an unusually large number of recent hires.

“If we do have weather disruptions, it could take a little longer than we are used to basically recover from that snowstorm,” he said.


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