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Half a million passengers faced delays on international flights at Pearson in May

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Former NHLer Ryan Whitney has called Toronto's Pearson airport "the worst place on Earth" after the one-time Edmonton Oilers defenceman endured a long delay at Canada's largest airport.

Whitney laid bare his exasperation in a posting to his 414,000 Twitter followers after undergoing a gauntlet of lines, delays, cancellations and rebookings during an Air Canada stopover. He said he landed at Pearson at 3 p.m. on Sunday and didn't take off for Boston until 1 p.m. the next day.

"I am so in shock at this place. It is the biggest disgrace known to man," he posted in a selfie video from the gate.

"I'm gonna have a viral meltdown."

Scenes of endless security and customs queues at large Canadian airports -- and Pearson in particular -- have played out all spring, with peak travel season still weeks away. While the federal government has pledged to hire hundreds more security screening officers, hurdles ranging from staffing shortages to COVID-19 health measures threaten to cascade into a problem that overmatches efforts to drain clogged terminals.

"I think it's just going to get worse," former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee said in an interview.

"The only thing consistent that's happened at Canadian airports for two months now is there have been delays."

Nearly half a million passengers were held up after arriving on international flights at Pearson airport last month. Some 490,810 travellers, or about half of all arrivals from abroad, faced delays as they were held inside their planes on the tarmac or faced staggered off-loading to ease pressure on overflowing customs areas, according to figures provided by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

In total, some 2,700 flights arriving from outside the country were delayed at Pearson last month, versus four planes -- and a few hundred passengers -- in May 2019.

Passenger volume is only likely to increase, with the summer holidays about to kick off and the United States announcing Friday it will drop COVID-19 testing requirements for inbound air travellers from abroad starting Sunday. That marks an end to major travel restrictions for U.S. travellers, although foreigners will have to prove they are vaccinated.

Passenger numbers still trail pre-pandemic levels, but debit and credit card purchases suggest bookings for travel and leisure activity now top 2019 levels, RBC chief economist Craig Wright said in a research note Tuesday.

Airlines, airports and Canada's airport security agency have been encouraging passengers to arrive three hours early for international flights amid the travel surge and employee shortage. But airlines are not configured to deal with hours-long security and customs delays, Dee said.

"That crew that was scheduled to operate your flight? They're out of duty time because the flight they operated this morning was held off gate for two hours," he wrote on Twitter, referring to regulatory limits on hours worked by flight crews within one-day and four-week periods.

"That aircraft that was scheduled to operate your morning flight? Sorry, it missed its scheduled maintenance last night because it couldn't offload its passengers on time because the customs hall was full."

Meanwhile a flight missed due to a long security queue or delayed connecting flight may take six hours to rebook -- as in Whitney's case -- since agents slated to cover the customer service counter are still working to board passengers on a different delayed plane. Similar barriers confront baggage handlers.

"There's no predictability to it. It depends really entirely on how either customs or security is working at that particular terminal in that particular moment," Dee said in the interview.

Between June 1 and June 9, Air Canada cancelled nine per cent of its scheduled flights at Pearson, according to statistics from flight data firm Cirium. The scrapped flights were evenly split between arrivals and departures.

"These days, airlines are facing the double whammy of a shortage of pilots, flight attendants and ground handlers and then lumpy demand on their network. Some planes are full, and some are not," said Cirium spokesman Mike Arnot.

Partially booked flights may be nixed in order to funnel passengers onto other planes and boost efficiency.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.

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