As a chaotic summer at Canadian airports lurched to a close, the federal government said 86 per cent of flights at the country’s four biggest hubs departed on time during the week of Aug. 22 to 28 – proof its leadership is resolving the mayhem faced by travellers. But industry experts say the government is using an unheard-of definition of “on time” to exaggerate the improvements.
At a recent news conference, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra highlighted Ottawa’s efforts to reduce flight delays. Those efforts have included meeting with airline and airport officials, streamlining check-in procedures, hiring more security officers and adding processing kiosks.
“The data show we are moving closer and closer to prepandemic numbers,” he said.
But the government, under pressure to resolve bottlenecks that marred the summer resurgence in air travel, is using a novel measurement to show its efforts were effective.
It defines an on-time flight as one that departed within an hour of its scheduled time, whereas the industry standard is 15 minutes.
An hour late is not on time, industry experts say. Such a delay would inconvenience passengers, and could make them miss connecting flights.
That was the case for much of the flying public over the summer, when the easing of the pandemic spurred a rebound in seat sales while Canadian airports were understaffed, and also unprepared to administer COVID-19 protocols for large numbers of people.
Travellers at the country’s major airports began enduring delays, cancellations and overcrowding at customs, security and baggage checkpoints in late spring. Government agencies, airlines and airports all blamed one another for the problems. In May, Mr. Alghabra said rusty travellers themselves shared some of the blame, because they were no longer used to screening procedures, such as removing computers and liquids from bags for inspection.
The actual on-time performance numbers at Canada’s major airports are far worse. At Toronto Pearson Airport, 55 per cent of flights departed on time from Aug. 22 to 28, according to Cirium, a Britain-based aviation analytics company that uses the 15-minute metric. At Montreal-Trudeau Airport, the proportion was 53 per cent. And it was 61 per cent at Vancouver International Airport, and 73 per cent at Calgary International Airport.
Between May and early September, almost 52 per cent of Pearson’s flights were late, making Canada’s biggest airport the world’s worst performer, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware. Montreal-Trudeau came second, at 48 per cent.
Duncan Dee, a former operations chief at Air Canada, said the government’s use of the one-hour measurement is “misleading and farcical.”
“It’s not something that’s done anywhere on the planet,” he said.
Mr. Dee said the government is trying to show that its efforts to reduce airport congestion and delays are working faster than they actually are. Declaring flights that are an hour late “on time” also tells agencies responsible for security and customs checks that poor performance is acceptable, he said.
“It really lets the pressure off customs and security. These guys are basically saying, ‘As long as these flights are going within an hour, the minister says it’s fine,’ ” Mr. Dee added.
James Hetzel, an analyst with Cirium, said the 15-minute measurement is a global standard, and a closely watched gauge of operational performance at airlines and airports.
“Measures of flight delays greater than 15 minutes of departure or arrival are typically not a measure of on-time flight operations,” he said. “Delays greater than 15 minutes are considered a long delay and have consequences on downstream flights.”
Mr. Alghabra’s office did not grant an interview, and referred questions to Transport Canada.
Simon Rivet, a Transport Canada spokesman, said the department tracks and reports departures “on a scale level that would be most useful to the general public in light of how delays in Canada’s airports are likely to impact on travel. Shorter delays, such as those under 15 minutes, are more likely to be made up during the travel, and less likely to result in missed connections
Delays at Canadian airports did become less prevalent as the summer travel season wore on. In the late spring, just 25 per cent to 35 per cent of flights were on time, Pearson said in August, using the 15-minute measure. That improved to just more than 50 per cent by the end of August, according to Cirium.