Flyer Beware: Holiday travel can be messy this season

A passenger makes its way through Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The rate of canceled and delayed flights at Canadian airports has fallen since the summer, but remains high.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Airline passenger numbers this holiday season are on the verge of reaching prepandemic standards, but whether Canadians are experiencing normal levels of peak travel stress or a repeat of the chaos that unfolded at the country’s major airports over the summer remains unclear.

Despite numerous initiatives to clear backlogs by airport authorities, some experts still see a significant risk of widespread cancellations and delays.

John Gradek, coordinator of McGill University’s aviation management program, points to a “very real possibility” of holiday flights being canceled if airline schedules prove more ambitious than what airports can handle.

While the rate of canceled and delayed flights at Canadian airports has fallen since the summer, it remained high even during the slower fall travel season, according to data from flight tracking service FlightAware.

At Toronto Pearson International Airport and Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, the share of flights leaving the gate more than 15 minutes late dropped from about 50 percent in the summer to about 35 percent between the beginning of September and the end of November, according to FlightAware .

The percentage of canceled flights at the two airports was 1.8 percent and 1.7 percent. In the US, a rate above 1 percent is considered “problematic” because this is the level at which the impact of passengers missing connections begins to have widespread ripple effects, said Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for FlightAware.

The share of canceled flights in the U.S. was about 1 percent and the share of delayed flights was about 17 percent between September 1 and November 23 — a period that includes the country’s busy travel period leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.

In Toronto and Montreal, operators of the two cities’ major airports say they have worked with airlines and the government to help smooth travel during the holiday season.

At Pearson, passengers can now view online dashboards for real-time data on wait times at airline check-in counters, security, customs and baggage delivery upon arrival. There is also YYZ Express, where travelers can book a place in line and enjoy expedited security checks.

But Mr. Gradek’s advice to Canadian travelers is to still expect disruptions. He recommends using only carry-on bags when possible and dropping a wireless tracking device into all checked bags in case they get delayed or lost. Purchasing trip interruption and cancellation insurance is also a must, he said.

Mr. Gradek’s main concern is the number of flights Canadian airlines plan to operate during the holiday season. The Canadian government has not been as aggressive as US authorities in putting pressure on airlines to limit their flight schedules, he said.

While U.S. passenger volume prior to Thanksgiving roughly matched pre-pandemic traffic, according to U.S. government data, the country’s largest airlines operated fewer flights compared to the same period in 2019, while major carriers opted to operate larger aircraft to fly, said Mrs. Bangs.

Canada, on the other hand, is seeing a significant increase in air travel capacity, thanks to growing competition on domestic and US routes, Mr. Gradek said.

For example, Mississauga-based Canada Jetlines Operations Ltd., which made its first flight in September, now flies to Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. The airline joined a crowded field of smaller carriers, including Calgary-based Lynx Air, which launched in April, and Edmonton-based Flair Airlines, which has been aggressively expanding its fleet and list of destinations.

That additional offering means more choice and cheaper airline tickets for consumers, but also more planes flying through the country’s already congested airports, Mr Gradek added.

Although the workforce has improved since the summer, the shortage of workers at the airport remains a concern. The issue could still “affect the delivery of services during the passenger’s journey at the airport,” Eric Forest, a spokesman for Aéroports de Montréal, said of Montreal’s Trudeau airport.

As winter progresses, there is also an increased risk of staffing challenges due to airline workers calling in sick due to the current spate of cases of respiratory syncytial virus, flu and COVID-19, Ms Bangs warned.

And in Canada in particular, bad weather conditions can test airlines and airports alike, which rely on an unusually large number of recent hires.

“If we have weather disruptions, it may take a little longer than we’re used to to recover essentially from that blizzard,” he said.

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