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Weak on-time record of Canadian airports, airlines raises questions for summer travel

Air Canada’s on-time arrivals rate was 57.3 per cent in March versus 69.6 per cent in March 2019

Canadian airports and airlines logged a large number of flight delays last month, raising questions about their readiness for the summer travel rush.

Big airports and carriers had a much weaker on-time record in March than comparable U.S. outfits — and their own performance in 2019 — according to figures from aviation data firm OAG.

Toronto’s Pearson airport saw 61.2 per cent of flights leave on time — within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure — versus 73 per cent four years earlier. By comparison, New York’s JFK airport and Chicago’s O’Hare airport had on-time performances of about 73 per cent and 79 per cent, respectively — within a couple percentage points of O’Hare’s 2019 rate, indicative of American airports’ earlier recovery.

Air Canada’s on-time arrivals rate was 57.3 per cent in March versus 69.6 per cent in March 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the air travel industry. The latest number also contrasts to the 77-to-79 per cent range for three of the biggest U.S. carriers, though they generally face smoother weather conditions.

WestJet and Porter Airlines managed to land about 63 per cent and 65 per cent of their flights on time in March, respectively, compared with 80 per cent and 82 per cent four years earlier.

The higher volume of flight delays could bode poorly for travellers in the coming months and come after chaotic travel seasons during the summer and winter holidays. The situation reflects systemic issues across the Canadian aviation sector, said former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee

“What is shocking to me from these numbers is that all three major national Canadian airlines face very similar on-performance challenges,” Dee said.

“The only conclusion is either Canadian airlines are operationally challenged or that operating in Canada involves common structural issues which all three Canadian carriers face, which makes their on-time performance markedly poorer versus their U.S. peers,” he said.

Severe staffing shortages and high worker attrition rates were among the factors conspiring to snarl air travel as the sector began recovering from COVID-19-related travel restrictions in 2022.

Airlines and the two federal agencies responsible for airport security screeners and border officers have told The Canadian Press they are adequately staffed to handle the flood of spring travellers, though some hedged their confidence.

“While we are well-staffed and prepared for the spring and summer travel seasons, it’s important to note that wait times at any airport can occur for various reasons, even when staffing levels are optimal, and can fluctuate throughout the day based on passenger volume/number of flights,” said Suzanne Perseo, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), in an email last month.

The March data was not an exception. The percentage of on-time departures in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in February was well below that of airports in Seattle, Chicago, New York City and Boston, according to statistics from OAG.

And last month, the Montreal airport notched an on-time rate of about 68 per cent versus 80 per cent in March 2019. Calgary, the country’s fourth-biggest airport, registered a rate of 72 per cent compared to 82 per cent four years before.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, which is no stranger to rough weather and handles more passengers annually than both of those airports combined, saw 81 per cent of its flights depart on-time last month, just three percentage points below 2019.

—Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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