Ambarish Chandra is an economics professor at the University of Toronto whose research examines airlines, travel and trade. Duncan Dee is a former chief operating officer at Air Canada who was appointed by the minister of transport as the air transportation lead on the panel that reviewed the Canada Transportation Act in 2016.
Air Canada’s recent announcement that it will cut more than 15 per cent of its flights in July and August – followed by WestJet’s own “measured” reduction and reports that Montreal’s airport is contemplating reductions to both “frequencies and destinations” – is a remarkable acknowledgment that the current delays, disruptions and cancellations at airports and airlines will not end soon.
Other airlines around the world have announced significant cancellations in recent weeks, too, showing that the global airline industry could not simply be placed into suspended animation during the COVID-19 pandemic and be expected to spring back to normal, especially amid increased regulations.
As we have written previously, this situation has multiple causes, not all of which were under the control of airlines or governments around the world. It is now obvious that massive labour shortages and post-pandemic supply chain disruptions are affecting every industry, so it should not be surprising that these are affecting airlines disproportionately. The logistical complexities of modern airline travel require a seamless interplay between passengers, airlines and governments, and while the industry often takes for granted smooth operating decisions and intricately choreographed processes at every airport, problems at any one of these links have cascading effects.
For example, a delay in processing incoming passengers at one airport – caused either by a shortage of customs officers or baggage handlers – will result in missed connections for passengers and their bags, which in turn will require rebookings and greater pressure on flights to other destinations, along with increased demands on customer service agents and baggage handlers. Problems can then spiral if, for example, employees under greater pressure are more likely to call in sick, refuse overtime or quit. Owing to already thin profit margins, airports and airlines operate with very little slack even in the best of times, which is why air-transportation systems can fail during peak periods.
It is apparent that both airlines and governments underestimated the desire of travellers to resume normal travel, and neither one was prescient enough to hire more staff in anticipation. For example, while Air Canada retained 97 per cent of its pre-pandemic workforce to operate 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic schedule, that buffer was clearly insufficient given the tremendous delays caused by government service failures. Meanwhile, the unprecedented delays plaguing passport offices highlight another way in which Canada’s government was apparently caught unprepared for the resumption of travel.
It remains baffling that the government is not now moving faster to eliminate bureaucratic procedures. Canada was one of the last countries in the world to drop vaccination and mandatory testing requirements for passengers, but the ArriveCan screening app remains in force, as does the random testing of international arriving travellers. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority also continues to insist on arcane screening procedures such as requiring liquids to be placed in special plastic bags, processing flight crews the same way as regular passengers, and refusing to implement a trusted traveller program for pre-board passenger screening.
Given these continuing issues, Air Canada and WestJet appear to have calculated that it is better to rip off the Band-Aid and announce large-scale, proactive cancellations now, rather than endure a steady drip of airport horror stories and subject passengers to the frustrations caused by last-minute cancellations.
Although the news of these cancellations is dramatic, it is unlikely to negatively affect Air Canada or WestJet’s brand in the long term, given that airlines and airports are struggling worldwide. In fact, now that these announcements are behind them, the airlines have demonstrated that they are prepared to do their part to ease the strain on the air transportation system. It’s now up to other partners – most importantly governments – to do their share.
For passengers, though, promises of better days ahead are of little consolation when long-planned vacations have been irredeemably altered. Some Canadians who have already booked travel will face cancellations and forced itinerary changes. Those yet to book will see fewer flight options and potentially higher fares. Given the seasonality of Canadian air travel, things will likely improve after Labour Day and slowly return to normal, but with the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel rushes soon after, the next major strain on an already stressed air transportation system will be just around the corner. Airlines, airports and governments would be wise to learn lessons now to work more effectively together for smoother travel in the months and years ahead.
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