TORONTO -- The busiest airport in Canada appears more like a parking lot due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on non-essential travel.

More than 60 planes for Air Canada and WestJet sat idle at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Friday.

“This is my 24th year at Pearson and I’ve never seen it like this,” Dean Wright, the associate director of gating and airport flow, said.

“I can hardly put it into words not hearing the noise of jet engines and not seeing the hustle and bustle of ground crews.”

The airport has created extra parking along its taxiways and de-icing pads. It has also established short-term and long-term plans for Canadian airlines.

“As the airlines figure out what they are doing with their fleet and maintenance, we’ve built an adaptable program,” Wright said. “In the last few days, we’ve seen as high as one hundred aircraft.”

Some planes could be parked at the airport for up to six months, but will still require routine maintenance.

“From what we’ve been told each of those aircraft need to do an idle run and certain checks every seven days, so we have to take into account where they are parked,” Wright said.

Air Canada has cancelled most of its international and U.S. flights in response to the global pandemic.

WestJet has cancelled all transatlantic and U.S. routes until May 4 and has already halved its domestic capacity.

Air Transat and Porter Airlines have also suspended all flights.

According to the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, Pearson averaged 1,200 flights per day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. That number has now dropped to an average of 200 flights per day.

“We were used to seeing 130,000 passengers coming through Pearson per day and now we are seeing approximately 5,000,” Wright said.

Empty planes

While the terminals may be quiet, there has been an increase in cargo operations with essential goods and medical supplies being shipped to and from the airport.

“In a normal week, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, we would expect to see 65 schedule cargo freighter movements per week and on top of that we would expect to see about four unscheduled other cargo freighter movements per week,” Craig Bradbrook, Vice President of aviation services said.

“What we’ve seen is that four additional movements is actually growing to 35 additional freighter movements.”

Historically, 70 percent of cargo at Pearson has been hauled on passenger aircraft, but with many sitting idle, that is creating a new set of challenges.

“There is a lot cargo that has not been moving, so there is a lot of focus now on freighter aircraft carrying that cargo,” Bradbrook said.

A number of airlines, including Air Canada, are making passenger planes available for cargo-only flights.

Air Canada says its Boeing 787 aircraft can carry 35 tonnes of cargo or the equivalent of about 80 grand pianos.

Last week the airline delivered cargo to nine destinations in Europe and one within Canada.

“Much of the shipments are medical goods and other urgent goods requiring transport,” Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah said. “We’re continuing to explore additional opportunities to domestically.”

Air Canada has nine cargo flights planned for next week, including four destinations in Asia.

With files from The Canadian Press