MP says Ottawa underestimated Canadians’ willingness to travel again

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CALGARY – A member of parliament says Ottawa may have underestimated Canadians’ willingness to travel when it planned a return to normal after most pandemic restrictions end.

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Airlines and airports are grappling with a surge in customers this summer, compounded by staff shortages affecting both carriers and federal agencies.

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As a result, passengers faced widespread flight cancellations, baggage delays and long lines, particularly at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Last month, due to an error, the ArriveCan app instructed about 10,200 travelers to quarantine for 10 days when it was not necessary.

Annie Koutrakis, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of transportation, told reporters in Calgary on Tuesday that the planning for a return to normal is a little lacking.

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“We anticipated. Yes, the planning has begun. What we underestimated, unfortunately, was the desire that everyone wanted to travel to and everyone wanted to travel at the same time,” Koutrakis said.

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“Our data shows that we didn’t expect everyone to start traveling to the extent that they did. It’s not like we waited and didn’t plan behind the scenes to be ready for this. More could have just been done.”

Koutrakis said this is the first time the government has gone through a pandemic and there are lessons to be learned.

Transport Minister Omar Algabra was irritated about the delays at a House of Commons committee last week.

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Conservative MP Melissa Lantzman asked him if the federal government bears any responsibility, and Algabra replied: “I blame it on COVID.” He cited labor shortages as a major factor in the delays.

Koutrakis said the data shows that abandoning the ArriveCan application will increase delays and bottlenecks, and removing the mask mandate will not reduce wait times.

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A statement from Algabra’s office said the government recognizes that airport delays are frustrating for travelers and it has met with airlines, airports and the public to address concerns.

He said progress was being made in reducing the number of cancellations. Also, in the second week of August, less than two percent of international arrivals in Toronto were held up on the tarmac due to congestion, compared to 18 percent in the first week of May.

It added that 87 percent of passengers waited less than 15 minutes to get through security, up from 63 percent in early May.

Koutrakis announced nearly $2 million to help Calgary International Airport improve current and future flight schedules and connection times, as well as create dedicated corridors to allow for physical distancing.

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There were no representatives of either airline at the announcement.

However, Bob Sartor, president and CEO of the Calgary Airport Authority, said carriers suffer from the same problems of hiring enough staff.

“The reality is that they’re facing more of the issues that we’re facing at (the Calgary airport) and that’s the need for additional staff,” Sartor said. “They did what we did as an airport and cut staff significantly during the pandemic.”

Sartor said recertifying pilots and obtaining personnel security clearances could take months.

“If we ever have one of these black swan events – and I pray we don’t – we need a consolidated plan to restart the aviation sector.”

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