Looking out over the lake from the park

Are Travel Woes Over?

  • 6th April 2023
  • 6 min read

In January and February, I flew to Mexico and the southern United States from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Being well aware of the holiday season aviation chaos and Pearson’s recent status as Worst Airport in the World by FlightAware, I heeded the warnings of friends and arrived three hours ahead of my flights.

Much to my delight and chagrin, the check-in and security processes were completely smooth. Both times I arrived at my gate with hours to spare before take-off, cursing the fact that I could have slept in if I followed my usual travel timing routine.

An end to the chaos?

Last summer, consumer travel activity roared back across North America as travel restrictions lifted and a public eager to combat pandemic fatigue booked long-awaited trips.

Airlines saw the opportunity to make up the revenues they had lost during the pandemic by maximizing their flight schedules—selling hundreds of flights that were quickly snapped up by an eager public.

Air Canada, for example, unsuspended 41 North American routes and 34 transcontinental routes that had been sidelined due to the pandemic and added seven new North American ones.

But air travel infrastructure simply wasn’t in place for the surge in volume. Canadian Border Security Agency personnel, staff at NAVCAN (which provides air traffic control, airport advisory services, weather briefings and aeronautical information services), flight crews and baggage loaders who were let go during the pandemic were not backfilled in time for the summer peak.

As we all now know, the system buckled under pressure.

“Inbound and outbound passenger counts are critical information that airports are not getting,” John Gradek, Faculty Lecturer and Coordinator of the Aviation Management Program at McGill University, told The Big Story podcast in February 2023. “Airlines send their schedule to the airports four or five months ahead of time, well before most passengers have booked their trips. But airlines have not been providing passenger load information to the airports to ensure that they have the right level of staffing to handle the volume.”

A queue of people wait to use the check-in desk at the airport

Too many passengers and not enough personnel led to compounding logistical headaches that ruined the travel experience for many consumers and provided lots of fodder for news outlets.

Amid much finger-pointing, the airlines, airports and government transportation departments vowed to do better. And in some ways, they did. By late summer 2022, Air Canada said it had reached more than 90% of its pre-pandemic employment rate.

By October, Pearson International Airport had brought its on-time performance up to approximately 60-65%, which, let's face it, isn't great and is still well short of its 90% pre-pandemic levels, but was an improvement over July 2022 when more than half of all airplane departures were delayed and roughly two out of five flights arrived on time.

The next test would be the Christmas season – one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

Once again, amid robust holiday flight sales, the North American aviation industry collapsed under pressure, this time due to Mother Nature.

In the week before Christmas, a bomb cyclone system created blizzard conditions all across the Canada-US border. The extreme weather led to thousands of flight delays and cancellations, lost and stranded luggage, long lines, missed holidays, and numerous travel insurance claims.

Time to rebuild

In the face of these tribulations, airlines and airports are regrouping. Westjet has created an operating plan to ensure client satisfaction and the company’s ability to recover from the pandemic’s impact.

Sunwing has reduced and cancelled schedules over the summer, recognizing it cannot sustain the levels of travel that it enjoyed pre-pandemic.

In February, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority announced that it would limit the number of flights through Pearson airport to flatten peak-hour schedules for March Break and the upcoming summer season.

A man sleeps in an airport with his suitcase in tow.

As per my experience earlier this year, anecdotally, things are running more smoothly, but they are not without their problems.

According to FlightAware, in the first two months of 2023, Canada’s big air carriers cancelled approximately 1.5% of their flights. And although flights are getting in the air, the system is still plagued by delays.

Roughly 38% of Canadian flights were delayed on arrival – on average, by more than 40 minutes.

But Gradek says the airlines are focused on cost containment and revenue maximization right now. “They lost a lot of experience and customer contact expertise and that expertise is hard to come by. Nobody [at the airlines] is talking about on-time performance. Nobody is talking about the amount of time you have to spend on the phone waiting to talk to somebody about a flight that Air Canada or anybody else has cancelled. Customer service is taking a back seat,” he says.

He suspects travellers are in for more bumps in the months ahead as the industry continues to regroup. His advice to potential travellers: avoid the peak seasons; leave early in the morning; stay away from Friday and Sunday travel; and if you're checking your bag, be sure to place trackers in them.

This article originally appeared in THIA News and is reprinted with permission from the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA).

Jo Anne Liburd
Author: Jo-Anne Liburd, Contributor

Jo-Anne is a communications consultant with more than two decades of experience working in healthcare, publishing, community services, and the financial sector. She serves as executive administrator of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada and is editor of its member publication THIA News. When not at a computer, she is likely swinging a racquet, dancing, or strategizing her next board game move.


Sign up for regular updates

Get the latest news, travel tips, and destination inspiration straight to your inbox.