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Air Canada, WestJet flights more often delayed than other North American airlines, new data shows

Travelers wait in line for Air Canada at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on July 2.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s two biggest airlines have the poorest on-time performance of the 10 big North American carriers, underlining that Canadian travelers are bearing the worst of the airport chaos and delays that have marred the restart of global air travel.

For the 30 days ending on July 3, Air Canada’s AC-T planes arrived as scheduled 38 per cent of the time, the poorest performance of the major airlines on the continent, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company. WestJet Airlines came in second last, arriving on time 54 per cent of the time.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines DAL-N, the world’s largest airline by sales, ranked first in the list with an 82-per-cent on-time performance. Alaska Airlines ALK-N came second at 81 percent.

The poor showing of the Canadian companies signals the struggles the domestic industry is facing as it gears up after a long quiet period brought about by the pandemic.

Air travel in Britain, Europe, the United States and elsewhere has also been disrupted in recent months amid staff shortages and labor disputes, but the troubles at Canadian airports – particularly Toronto Pearson – stand out.

“This is a global problem, but the reason we’re seeing a worse than average situation in Canada is that we were slow to anticipate the renewal of travel,” said Ambarish Chandra, a professor at University of Toronto. “Airlines and the government were slow to anticipate that, but we were also absolutely too slow to drop restrictions.”

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Ian Lee, a business professor at Carleton University, points to a lack of co-ordination and planning among the various companies and government agencies that work at the airports. He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have appointed a task force not long into the pandemic to oversee and manage the readiness of the various entities ahead of what was inevitable and foreseeable – the return of the traveling public in large numbers.

Instead, the Canadian aviation industry is served by larger than usual number of players – the airlines, contractors that load luggage and screen passengers, and the airport authorities and government agencies, including Transport Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and Canada Border Services Agency (and its US counterpart at some airports). “You have a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” Prof. Lee said by phone. “And it’s all affecting the outcome, the delivery of the passenger and the baggage on time.”

As the summer travel season heats up, the world’s airlines are scheduled this week to carry more than 100 million passengers, according to aviation consultancy OAG. This is the highest number since January, 2019, although the figure will drop as airlines cancel flights to alleviate the airport bottlenecks, OAG said.

Security agents at the eight largest Canadian airports conducted preflight checks on almost 156,000 people on July 3 as passenger volumes remain below 2019 levels. On June 30, agents checked almost 161,000 passengers, the most since Jan. 2, 2020. This was the eve of the pandemic that grounded much of the world’s airline industry as governments closed borders and imposed travel restrictions.

Air Canada last week said it will cut its schedule in July and August by more than 9,000 flights, or 10 per cent to 15 per cent. The cuts are mainly in Toronto and Montreal, hubs where the customer complaints about lineups and delays are loudest.

Air Canada’s on-time performance at Toronto Pearson lagged that of other airlines at the airport between April and June, even as the airport’s government agencies boosted staffing levels.

In a statement, Air Canada said the size of its operations means it is disproportionately affected by disruptions at Toronto Pearson, at which 55 per cent of its flights land. “Air Canada operates approximately 850 flights daily system-wide,” the airline said. “The overwhelming majority of scheduled flights operate each day and it consistently transports more than 125,000 people safely every day. The vast majority arrive at their destinations with their baggage.”

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Between Friday and Monday, inclusive, WestJet canceled 55 flights, including two for unplanned maintenance. The Calgary-based airline flew 2,234 flights in that time. “We have been able to stabilize our operation to prevent reactive cancellations, however, there remains significant operational challenges across the Canadian aviation ecosystem that can fall outside of our control, contributing to delays,” said Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman.

Airlines and the companies that load, refuel and service the planes schedule employees to work when the flow of passengers is the heaviest, typically in the morning and evenings. But when flights are delayed, this can push arrivals or departures into periods when there are not enough employees to unload the planes and process the passengers, said Dave Flowers, national president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents CATSA workers as well as Air Canada’s baggage handlers. So the delays cascade and affect other airports, Mr. Flowers said.

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