Long waits at major Canadian airports and on paved roads are likely to last for months, thanks to a shortage of workers and a backlog of training.
And after weeks of passengers waiting in long queues for hours, missing flights, and stranded on planes, constant delays at major Canadian airports began to be blamed on the agency in charge of security screening.
Airports across Canada, especially major hubs like Toronto and Vancouver, are seeing formations of security and customs screening as passengers flock in droves to travel after two years of weak demand due to the pandemic.
Fingers are being pointed at Air Transport Security Canada, which contracts with third-party companies such as Allied Universal and GardaWorld. The security agency appears to have been surprised when the demand for flights soared, but critics say it should have been expected. To make matters worse is the massive turnover of trained employees who quit due to stress and low wages.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority says waiting times for departing passengers are being hurt by staffing challenges imposed by the security authority, with additional delays for US-bound travelers due to cross-border shortages. Meanwhile, airline spokeswoman Rachel Burton said in an email that international incoming passengers are being delayed due to public health requirements.
The airport authority is calling on the government to simplify or eliminate some public health requirements for incoming travelers, get rid of random testing, and invest in staffing and technology.
In a statement posted on May 2 on its website, Mike Saunders, chief executive of the Security Authority, apologized for the inconvenience passengers faced. He said that outsourced contractors, such as Allied Universal and GardaWorld, are hiring and training new employees to meet pent-up demand after pandemic layoffs and staffing challenges that have decimated the workforce — from 7,400 to about 6,500 across Canada, which has yet to be certified, according to Company spokesperson Susan Persieux.
Birsu said in an email that the security authority has a goal of hiring about 1,000 screening officers this year, in addition to the more than 1,200 called up in 2021. She said recruitment efforts have been ramped up last year, but training and certification takes weeks; The authority places pre-approved employees to work in non-screening positions to help deal with the demand.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Dave Flowers, president of Area 140 at the International Association of Mechanics and Space Workers, which represents about 4,000 airport security workers in British Columbia and Ontario.
Union officials warn that strikes could occur at some major airports if workers do not see better wages and conditions.
Flowers said that while real hiring is increasing, employee turnover is “unbelievable.” He said workers drop out of training or leave their jobs because of stress and the hourly wage (it varies, but union officials say it can range from $17 to $27 an hour).
GardaWorld spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin said the pandemic has led to higher levels of absenteeism and staff shortages, while the number of passengers has increased. He said in an email that the company is working on various strategies to attract and train new officers.
A spokesperson for Allied said the issue of delays at airports is happening globally as the sector adjusts to higher traffic volumes.
“In an already constrained workforce… positions with CATSA are critical security positions with stringent requirements, making the pool of qualified applicants available even smaller. Furthermore, new officers go through several weeks of testing and specialized training before they can work because this is a role important in the field of safety.”
She said the company values its employees and offers a competitive benefits package, and is currently offering referral bonuses to employees who help recruit new employees, with success so far.
Kathryn Cosgrove of Teamsters Canada, which represents about 1,000 GardaWorld screening workers across the country including Winnipeg and Edmonton, said between 10 and 30 percent of workers at airports have been lost during the pandemic, but have never been replaced.
Recruiting, training and checking an airport official takes time — while training takes weeks, Cosgrove said, getting a security clearance alone can take one to six months. So the backlog in hiring and training isn’t something that can be dealt with overnight, she said, and she estimates that delays could persist for months, even after Christmas.
David Lipton of the United Steelworkers Union, which represents about 2,000 airport security workers across Canada, said Ottawa airport currently has 207 such workers, 172 of whom are fully trained and certified. Their goal? three hundred fifty.
Other workers are affected by the shortage, too — the union that represents about 15,000 flight attendants says its members are being forced to work for free. They are generally paid only for time in the air, according to the Canadian Federation of Public Employees, so the hours they spend waiting on the tarmac to deal with travelers are unpaid.
As airport security workers continue to grapple with delays, customer anger and long working hours amid a tight job market, some are looking for a way out — and finding one.
Lipton said the Parliamentary Protection Service is ramping up hiring for much better wages. Since the start of 2022, he said, about 50 people have left Ottawa airport, and many of them are now working in Parliament House.
Flowers said airlines are also working to increase hiring. Many sorting workers are also qualified for jobs with airlines, which pay more — and so they leave for greener pastures.
With high inflation and low unemployment, Cosgrove said, it is understandable that these workers will look to higher-paying jobs. “They will go to the highest bidder.”
While all this is happening, some workers may also be preparing to strike.
Cosgrove said about 400 workers at Edmonton Airport are negotiating. Members just turned down an offer over the weekend — she said their salary expectations are high, and they could strike as early as August.
Lipton said the Ottawa collective agreement is also under negotiation, and initial indications are that the employer is not offering a high enough wage, which means a strike may be on the horizon.
Airlines are also concerned about the impact of delays on their passengers.
“WestJet is concerned with the status of services provided by government agencies at our air borders and security checkpoints, and we are working diligently with the appropriate officials to stress the urgency of the situation given the rapidly increasing number of guests returning for travel this summer,” company spokesperson Madison Krueger said in an email.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the delays could have spillover effects on airlines’ operations, such as grounding planes at arrival gates, disrupting crews, and affecting schedules for cleaners and caterers.
Transport Minister Omar Al-Ghabra acknowledged the staff shortage and said the security authority was increasing the number of workers, but said he believed the out-of-practice travelers were to blame, not the lack of workers.
In a statement issued by the Office of the Minister of Transport, an industry spokesperson said the industry was working as quickly as possible to resolve staffing problems in the air sector.
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