Airlines give passengers a bumpy ride as non-essential travel opens up

From The Toronto Star – link to source story

By Josh Rubin, Business Reporter | Wed., Aug. 18, 2021

Emily Silva, centre, invited her parents, who live in B.C., to visit her in Woodstock, N.B. But the trip turned out to be more expensive than expected for her parents, Paula Laurie (red shirt) and Don Magwood (back), after WestJet cancelled their first flight. Others at the family reunion were Violet Silva (far left), Jose Silva (kneeling), Hazel Silva (far right), and a dog named Tucker.

Nineteen months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, Emily Silva was looking forward to seeing her parents again.

After she invited them to her home in Woodstock, N.B., Silva’s parents hunted around to find a way to get there from their home in Blind River, a small town in northern B.C.’s interior.

Eventually, they were excited to find a lengthy but affordable route starting at the airport in Prince George, a three-hour drive away.

When they showed up at the airport on July 30, they were shocked to learn the first leg of their journey, a WestJet flight to Vancouver, had been cancelled because of a crew shortage.

“They didn’t get a call, a text, nothing,” said Silva. After getting told the next available seat was on a flight leaving five days later, Silva’s parents eventually cancelled their WestJet flight and rebooked on an Air Canada trip that was almost double the cost, but got them to New Brunswick just a few hours later than expected.

They’re still hoping to get a refund for the difference from WestJet, but Silva isn’t holding out much hope. WestJet didn’t respond to several messages seeking comment for this story.

Andrea Creech’s daughter faced a challenging time returning to Washington, D.C., from Montreal recently. After arriving at the gate, Freya Creech was told she was one of 19 people who weren’t being allowed to board the Air Canada flight.

“First they said the plane was too small. Then they said they didn’t have enough crew for the number of passengers. And then after a few hours, they said there was some kind of issue with passengers, so they just cancelled the flight altogether,” said Andrea Creech of the shifting explanations her daughter got. Adding insult to injury? The taxi chit that airline staff gave her to reach an airport hotel was turned down by local taxi drivers.

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“There was zero sense Air Canada felt any kind of responsibility for the situation,” said Andrea Creech.

According to longtime airline-industry watcher Gabor Lukacs, Silva’s parents and Creech’s daughter are far from alone. As non-essential air travel begins to reopen, Lukacs says Air Passenger Rights, the passenger advocacy group he founded, has been inundated with complaints. One of the biggest sources of ire? Flights getting cancelled by airlines, either at the last minute or a few weeks in advance, with crew shortages cited as the reason. Other issues that passengers, airlines and airports are struggling to cope with include lengthy waits on the tarmac before passengers are allowed off, increased waiting times in customs halls, and a raft of different COVID-19 testing and documentation.

“People are being offered flights two or three days earlier or later. That’s just not OK. If you can’t provide the service people paid for, let someone else do it,” said Lukacs.

The airlines, which are running a small but growing fraction of their pre-COVID schedules, say some of the woes are out of their hands.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick says 97 per cent of Air Canada’s scheduled flights have been completed over the last few weeks, but admits that’s lower than usual.

“In recent weeks, there has been an increase in cancellations due to a number of factors associated with the restart of the industry, such as airport and other aviation stakeholder constraints,” said Fitzpatrick.

Processing individual passengers through customs is taking longer than it did before COVID, partly because of the increased documentation required for travel, said Ryan White, a spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, which operates Pearson International Airport.

Making sure customs halls and baggage claim areas aren’t overcrowded is also contributing to delays, White said.

“It should also be noted that we may hold planes at the gate — or hold arriving passengers in designated areas of the airport — during peak times to reduce the number of passengers entering the customs-controlled area,” White said.

The Canada Border Services Agency wasn’t able to respond to questions before the Star’s deadline.

In some cases, Fitzpatrick says, customs and airport delays mean flight crews go past their maximum allowable hours, rendering them unavailable for return flights.

And, he added, airlines can’t just snap their fingers and get thousands of employees suddenly back to work.

“We continue to recall employees, which in some cases also requires retraining and reactivating security clearances, so it is a gradual process,” said Fitzpatrick.

Don’t expect any rapid improvements either, warns Fraser Johnson, an operations management professor at Western University’s Ivey Business School. It’s a matter of dollars and cents, he says.

“The airlines are ramping things back up, but it’s happening in a very measured way because they can’t afford to blow their brains out on costs,” said Johnson, adding that airlines have been seeing their profit margins thin since the North American industry was deregulated in the 1980s.

“If it were a higher-margin business, they could afford to have more pilots and crews on standby. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of costs,” said Johnson.

The airline industry, Johnson said, is like any other major business in terms of the disruptions it’s facing because of COVID.

“Their supply chains have been disrupted. Their operations have been disrupted. We’re going to be in for a very rough year or two, in terms of all the products and services we buy,” Johnson said.