Don Martin: Flying united to demand government take off its COVID controls – CTV News

Incredibly, the current Pearson passenger chaos could be a calm before the perfect storm whacks Canada’s most important airport in just three weeks.

The Toronto Pearson International Airport crush is about to face the year’s worst passenger crunch, the dreaded Canada Day jumpstart of the summer rush when an army of families with strollers and unaccompanied minors will exacerbate the overcrowding.

Think those hours-long waits on planes before customs can handle disembarking passengers are bad now?

Without immediate government help, they’ll get longer and join chronic late departures and a jaw-dropping number of cancelled Air Canada flights to make the summer flying season even more miserable, if that’s possible.

It’s all part of a frustrating chain reaction that backs up from the check-in counter and security screening for outbound passengers to the customs desk for plane-trapped arrivals, all of it triggered by pointlessly obstructionist federal actions exacerbated by staff shortages hitting every part of airport operations.

‘JULY 1 WILL BE A ZOO’

“The minister blamed it on out-of-practice travellers in May. Well, he hasn’t seen anything yet,” former Air Canada executive Duncan Dee told me Thursday. “July 1 will be a zoo unless the minister figures it out in the next two weeks.”

There’s unusual agreement on what should be done with airports, airlines, the tourism sector, corporate Canada and Toronto’s mayor all flying united in demanding the feds back away from measures gumming up the passenger surge.

But all this is lost on Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who seems 30,000 feet over his head in figuring out how to get planes airborne in a timely fashion and unloaded in less time than passengers spent in the air.

The minister was gulping for oxygen on potential resolutions on his way into a caucus meeting this week, only to emerge hours later to declare salvation was at hand with a snap-of-the-finger hiring of more than 800 warm bodies to staff security and border desks.

Now aside from the fact these people need training before they can handle the hard stuff or that the new hires will backfill for those on summer vacation, there’s a months-long backlog in the issuing of security clearances, Dee told me. This suggests real relief from the hiring spree won’t be in place until after the travel surge eases on Labour Day.

This is unfolding while union officials privately fret a possible wave of sick calls or resignations by stressed-out employees who don’t earn enough to endure the daily abuse of fed-up passengers.

After all, the job of airport security screening officer, for those whose idea of a dream career is ordering shoes removed or rummaging through carry-on luggage in pursuit of tweezers or a tube of hand gel that’s not in an approved plastic bag, starts at $22.28 an hour. If you really want a job experience in seeing the worst of humanity up close, you can staff the check-in counter to face belligerently fed-up passengers starting at $21 an hour.

There’s no easy one-step solution, of course, but officials I’ve talked to believe eliminating those pesky Canada Public Health Agency requirements is a big step in the gridlock-unlocking direction.

ARRIVECAN IS ‘NEEDLESSLY BUREAUCRATIC’

The ArriveCan vaccination-proving app is needlessly bureaucratic when 90 per cent of the population has been vaccinated or had the virus. The random testing is pointless, given that the 240,000 inbound airline passengers tested over the last two months yielded a three per cent positivity rate, less than half the 8.2 per cent overall positivity rate across Canada.

Only the masking has lingering value, but that should be reduced to voluntary encouragement because, after all, what’s the point of rabid enforcement if the person sitting beside you removes their mask to eat and drink?

Until that happens, many travellers routed through Toronto will continue to have airport horror stories – which gives me an excuse to share mine.

I returned from overseas to face an hour-long lineup to reach the Toronto arrival terminals, another 30-minute lineup for a customs official to send me to “triage” for another COVID interrogation followed by another round of questions at Immigration culminating with a random COVID-19 test. Elapsed time: 2.5 hours – and that was before I joined a parade of passengers forced to leave the secure zone and re-enter security screening just in time to miss a connecting flight to Ottawa. Whew. Glad that’s off my chest.

Former NHLer Ryan Whitney – he of the Pink Whitney grapefruit vodka drink fame – did Canadian passengers a service by panning Toronto’s airport on a world-watched viral video.

It not only gave passengers a rallying cry and media focus, but also gave global travel agents a reminder to avoid sending clients through Toronto where they’ll almost certainly miss their connections.

This pandemic has given the federal government two years of bureaucratizing Canadians to unacceptable excess — and the flying public has taken the hardest hit.

We were told all these pandemic measures were for our own good. Those who challenged the rules were written off as privileged whiners.

Well, it’s time for the whiners to win and the government to reopen the skies, a return to those glory times of flying when the biggest complaints were expensive parking, a middle seat and stale pretzels.

That’s the bottom line.