Behind the scenes at Canada’s busiest airport ahead of the March travel wave

As air travel recovers as pandemic restrictions ease, Toronto's Pearson International Airport is busier than ever.  CBC News takes a look inside what's driving Pearson — and whether it's primed for the upcoming touring season.  (Laura Clementson/CBC - photo credit)

As air travel recovers as pandemic restrictions ease, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is busier than ever. CBC News takes a look inside what’s driving Pearson — and whether it’s primed for the upcoming touring season. (Laura Clementson/CBC – photo credit)

It’s 4:30 am and Terminal 3 at Toronto Pearson International Airport is already bustling with activity.

Hundreds of people wait in lines snaking around Canada’s busiest airport as passengers arrive to catch the first flights of the day – everyone hoping everything goes according to plan and they and their luggage get to their destination on time.

It sounds like a simple request, but it’s one that didn’t come to pass for thousands of people last year, when travel rebounded for the first time since pandemic-related restrictions grounded planes. The restart has been a bumpy ride — especially for Pearson, where flight cancellations and delays, hours of queues, and lost and missing luggage have been the cause of passenger frustration and media attention.

Last summer, Pearson was the world’s worst airport for delays from May to July, before slipping to the second-worst in August, according to US flight-tracking platform FlightAware. It was ranked among the top five airports for worst customer service, according to a September survey by JD Power.

The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), which operates Pearson, says more than 25 million travelers passed through the airport in the first nine months of 2022. A sharp increase from the 6.8 million the year before, but far less than the 2019 pandemic that preceded the pandemic, when more than 38 million passengers got through.

With the beginning of the March holidays this weekend, a renewed increase in passenger numbers is expected. GTAA expects up to 125,000 people will pass through the airport each Saturday and Sunday — a 30 percent increase from the same time last year.

As Pearson prepares for what will likely be a busy travel season, CBC News got a glimpse of what makes Canada’s busiest airport.

Post-pandemic travel is picking up speed

GTAA President and CEO Deborah Flint says the airport has had a harder time than most recovering from the pandemic.

“We were the only global connection hub that stayed closed for as long and with as little activity as we did,” she said. “So we had a very significant burden.”

Flint says Pearson saw a 180 percent increase in passenger activity in less than six months and that various parts of Pearson’s operations and businesses are still “struggling with the impact of the pandemic and its recovery.”

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

She says she’s optimistic that an increase in staff at the airport will make for a better experience.

“Can I guarantee you the future? No one in this industry can because weather events can happen,” Flint said.

“But what I can say is that everyone across the board is poised to recover faster and better for passengers than before.”

personnel issues

Former airline insider John Gradek isn’t so sure.

Airports dealing with multiple partners are not a new phenomenon and not unique to Toronto, he says, noting that the entire air travel industry has faced “massive cutbacks and massive downsizing” during the pandemic.

“Pearson has a long way to go to get his mojo back,” said Gradek, a former Air Canada executive who is now an associate professor in the aviation management program at McGill University in Montreal.

Jacques Poitras/CBC

Jacques Poitras/CBC

He says the airport is busy as it is a major hub for Canadian travel.

“It’s a monster. It’s a big airport. It’s the key to the success of the Canadian airline industry.”

Gradek attributes some of last year’s chaos to airlines selling so many tickets and filling so many flights so quickly that the airport couldn’t handle the surge. As April rolled around, he said July and August flights were fully booked.

“Pearson said, ‘Whoops, we’re not ready for this.’ And then the airline said… ‘Too bad, so sad. Planes are full.’ “

CLOCK | Airports say they are ready for the March break. Passengers are not sure:

Montreal-based airline Air Transat is one of 44 airlines operating out of Pearson. It had the fewest lags over the past year, according to Gradek, compared to its biggest Canadian competitors.

It’s 6 am and Judith MacDonald, Air Transat Toronto Station Manager, is making sure the day’s operations run smoothly.

She says it’s important for people to know there are multiple tiers that help get passengers and their luggage on board their planes.

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

“It’s a whole community working together. There are tons [that] addressing that,” she told CBC News while standing on the tarmac in front of Air Transat’s largest plane as it was loaded by about seven ground crew members and a supervisor. It’s a tall task, taking about 45 minutes, according to MacDonald and an hour.

Although ongoing labor problems continue to plague several sectors of the airline industry, particularly ground staff, MacDonald says Air Transat is prepared.

“We are all working together again as a community [get] contingencies to ensure passengers are on their way.”

baggage problems

As part of its exclusive access to Pearson, CBC News got a tour from Jose Salamo, GTAA’s director of baggage services.

All baggage destined for flights goes through GTAA’s intricate system – a total of about 34 kilometers of conveyor belts between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3. Salamo’s crew is responsible for transporting baggage between these areas. It is then up to the airlines and ground staff to load the bags onto the planes.

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

Much of last year’s chaos was due to baggage issues. Images of suitcases piled around the terminals and in the baggage hall were shared widely on social media.

Salamo said the problems stemmed from multiple issues, including staffing, mechanical and electrical issues, and IT considerations — for the GTAA and the airlines.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said, noting that on a “good day” his team of about 120 can handle over 115,000 outbound bags at both terminals.

“When there are staffing issues, there are numerous instances that can lead to a bad day,” Salamo said. “And of course that increases the stress level of everyone involved.”

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

He says that sometimes there are mountains of luggage scattered across the airport because they have limited storage capacity.

“We don’t want to store them outside. We need to store them in an environmentally friendly environment,” he said, noting that for this reason bags are either stored in baggage halls, other sections of the baggage system, or at departures.

eyes to the sky

When something goes wrong, Sonny Parmar is one of the first to know. He’s one of six GTAA Duty Managers working two shifts a day to make sure everything runs smoothly.

He says he always has in mind the knowledge that because Toronto Pearson is a huge hub, anything that happens here “could affect air travel around the world.”

Andy Hincenbergs/CBC

Andy Hincenbergs/CBC

Parmar’s office is in the Integrated Operations Control Center, the airport’s central nervous system, which, with countless screens, resembles a NASA control room.

He is currently tracking a snow storm heading towards Toronto. It’s not an issue unique to Pearson or Air Travel, but it’s a major issue causing flight delays and cancellations, and a Parmar is tasked with monitoring.

In this case, it means canceling flights.

According to Parmar, the GTAA gives airlines information about the weather and the number of arrivals and departures it has available per hour. He says airlines are using this to decide which flights to cancel and how to manage their flight schedules.

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

Approximately 400 organizations and agencies play a role in Pearson’s ability to operate smoothly – including retailers, airlines, third-party service providers, and government agencies such as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CTSA), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. GTAA employees make up about three percent of the workforce.

Flight boarding and deplaning is the responsibility of Nav Canada – a privately held, not-for-profit company that owns and operates Canada’s civil aviation system.

Kurtis Arnold, an air traffic controller at Nav Canada, says that Pearson is such a hub for air travel, “it’s the right place” because the pressure is really high.

“You can’t tell your planes to stop, can you? They move through the air at anywhere between five and ten kilometers per minute. And it’s our job to control these planes as they move and prepare them for landing. “

Laura Clementson/CBC

Laura Clementson/CBC

He says the trip back after the pandemic has been interesting.

“I think we all expected traffic to slowly come back. And what we found was that there was a lot of catching up to do.”

Arnold says demand coupled with high turnover during the pandemic has meant they’ve had to bring everyone up to speed very quickly.

“It’s nice to see people traveling again,” he said. “I mean, that’s what we want to see.”

The March break will test Pearson

What these passengers want to see is a seamless airport experience. Whether they get it at Pearson’s this weekend remains to be seen.

Gradek, the former industry insider, says the first weekend in March will be an instructive test to see if Pearson’s infrastructure is “capable of handling a very short-term spike in demand.”

GTAA announced in late February that it will severely cap the number of flights to “smooth out peak-hour flight schedules.” It says it has been working with airlines on the plan since August.

He’s not sure the airport is doing enough to manage travel, but Gradek says the only way to find out is to actually see it in operation.

“And I’ll keep my fingers crossed … and wait and see what happens.


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