Last thing anyone wants is chaos at Canada’s largest airport

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But at the end of the day, the bulk of the blame will be borne by the federal government.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 13, 2022.

OTTAWA—To mask or not to mask. That is the question.

As the provinces move to end requirements for wearing masks in public places, the federal government continues to insist that COVID rules will not be loosened.

As passengers return to air travel, they are continuing to experience massive delays, the blame for which is falling directly on the shoulders of the government.

The chaos at Pearson International Airport is so bad that a former National Hockey Leaguer has dubbed the airport “the worst place on Earth.”

Ryan Whitney, who hosts a popular podcast, tweeted about Pearson after taking 30 hours to complete an Air Canada flight from Edmonton to Boston.

One video showed Whitney waiting for six hours to rebook a cancelled flight only to be turned away. His documented video went viral with more than one million views.

Upon arriving home in Boston, Whitney declined media requests but posted his final unmistakeable global rebuke: “God bless anyone who ever has to step foot in that hellhole.”

Air Canada, and the airport, are blaming delays on federally required pandemic related tests and mandatory vaccination questionnaires.

Frustration has reached such a point that pro-Liberal Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie has been on the news calling the situation “completely unacceptable. It is not how we want to be viewed by the rest of the world. … Tourism season is on us. We need to get this fixed!”

Finger-pointing will continue between governments, the airport management, the airlines, and national regulatory authorities like the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, which is responsible for all screening.

But at the end of the day, the bulk of the blame will be borne by the federal government.

As the summer season looms, the last thing anyone wants is chaos at Canada’s largest airport.

Fifty countries around the world have already decided to drop their COVID airport screening requirements.

But instead of following their lead, the federal government is continuing to require lengthy screening processes, notwithstanding the request by everyone in the airline business to ease up on COVID processes.

“This is not the face we want to show the world,” Crombie told CTV news in a wide-ranging interview explaining how Pearson’s problems are affecting business and tourism in the region.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has been working double overtime, trying to ensure that security and airport screening hires are made and trained quickly.

Agencies involved in the hirings have even allowed employees in training to go right to the frontlines of work at the airport.

The transport minister announced the hiring of 865 more screening employees, who must go through training before they are fully operational.

Alghabra’s hands are tied on the health front, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated last week that science dictates a requirement for airport rules should remain in place.

He reminded Canadians we are still experiencing the pandemic. Travel rules will remain in place until at least Canada Day.

Alghabra has to simply keep reassuring stranded travellers that his department is working hard to fix the problem.

Non-travellers are not worried about lineups, but for those trying to get back to pre-COVID business normalcy, the delays are damaging.

With such a large contingent of GTA Liberals, it is hard to see a solution to the political pressure they must be feeling.

Passport delays are further adding to travel grief, with long lineups reported at many offices across the country.

Add the Pearson mess to dismal provincial Liberal results in the Ontario election, and members going home for the summer will be getting an earful from their constituents.

Most Canadians are not personally invested when government programs face glitches.

But when it comes to travel, every single Canadian who intends to leave the country needs a passport.

Likewise, tourism operators who have been starving during COVID are hoping to see a springboard to normalcy this summer.

But with all the bad news on Pearson going global, many foreign travellers may think twice before making Canada their chosen destination.

One answer would be to end COVID screening requirements on all flights.

There is no doubt that certain health risks are attached to those measures, but with provincial governments de-masking most activities in their provinces, the danger of going into a crowded restaurant is probably equivalent to passenger travel risk on planes.

Medical professionals may not be happy with the de-masking requirements, but the general population is ready to embrace the new normal.

After more than two years in lockdown, people want to be free.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.