Canadian airlines gear up for summer travel, but labor shortages pose a risk for passengers

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People arrive at the departures terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., on April 25.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Airlines are rolling out bigger flight schedules this summer, trying to capitalize on pent-up demand and higher prices, but labor shortages are threatening to spoil the party.

Canada’s air carriers and airports say they are prepared for the coming travel season and have enough staff, backup planes and resources to avoid a repeat of the long waits and lost luggage that marred the summer of 2022 or the thousands of canceled flights at Christmas, when two snowstorms revealed just how unprepared they were.

This time, they say, it’s different.

“As we continue to prepare for our busy summer travel season ahead, we are sufficiently staffed to support demand across our network,” said Madison Kruger, a spokeswoman for WestJet, which plans to hire 2,000 people this year.

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“We have been preparing for the summer for some time. This includes working with third parties to ensure they are prepared as well,” said Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman.

Industry experts and union officials are less confident. They say labor shortages, strong demand, airfare inflation and ambitious schedules are a recipe for more chaos.

“Everybody’s having trouble getting pilots,” said David Gillen, transportation business professor at the University of British Columbia. The shortage will make it impossible for some airlines to fulfill their schedules and expand, he said.

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Bernard Lewall, a union leader at the Air Line Pilots Association who represented 1,850 pilots at WestJet and Swoop, said the Calgary-based airline lost 240 pilots last year and another 100 this year, only some of whom have been replaced. Pilots are leaving for better pay, working conditions and job security in the United States, he said.

“Unless they reduce their schedule, I do not foresee us having enough pilots for the summer,” said Mr. Lewall, a Boeing 737 pilot who started at WestJet 18 years ago.

WestJet’s chief executive officer, Alexis von Hoensbroech, said the pilot shortage, a spillover effect of the pandemic and the near halt in licensing by Transport Canada, is a short-term problem aggravated by attrition during labor talks. WestJet will have enough pilots for its plans, which include the recent takeover of Sunwing Airlines, he said. “All our recruiting classes are actually really well filled,” he said in an interview.

Last summer, a shortage of staff at the government agencies that screened passengers led to jammed terminals and made passengers wait aboard parked aircraft for long periods.

“The GTAA has been working for months to make every aspect of airport operations better than last summer,” said Guy Nicholson, a spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which runs Toronto Pearson International Airport.

But just last weekend, a shortage of air-traffic controllers at Toronto Pearson caused several flight delays, a worrisome sign that Nav Canada, the non-profit that owns and operates the country’s civil air navigation service, is ill-prepared for the summer.

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Mr. Hoensbroech points out that Canada’s passenger rights rules make airlines financially accountable for the failure of third parties and government agencies to properly staff and run their operations. The air-traffic controller shortage had ripple effects through the entire network, exposing airlines to compensation claims, refunds and rebooked flights at other airports, he said. “Crews miss their connections, airplanes are late … from Toronto to Vancouver, so then the Vancouver to Kelowna flight will be late and then on that one, we pay everyone [compensation].”

The Canadian Transportation Agency, which advocates customer disputes, received 42,000 complaints from airline passengers in the 12 months ending March 31. By April 17, the backlog had risen to 45,000.

Air Canada passenger Adam Shepherd of Toronto is just one of the many passengers whose trips were disrupted by lost luggage.

Mr. Shepherd flew to San Diego and returned on Air Canada in early March. His bags were late going and coming. Three suitcases never appeared on the Pearson luggage belt when he returned to Toronto and had to be delivered separately to his home the next day and night. “I saw the luggage come off the plane – it just wasn’t loaded on the carousel,” he said by phone.

He wonders why the airline cannot hire enough baggage handlers.

The leader of the unionized workers who handle baggage, marshal aircraft and screen passengers say there are enough people to do the work, even if the lack of experience is a concern. Dave Flowers, president of District 140 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said employers have been on a hiring spree to avoid a repeat of the summer of 2022.

However, Mr. Flowers said, the surge of new employees has overwhelmed the Transport Canada licensing offices and there are not enough qualified people to train the new workers. Similarly, the schools that train aircraft mechanics cannot turn out graduates fast enough to meet demand, he said.

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Air Canada plans a 7-per-cent rise in July flights over the same month last year. WestJet has scheduled a 4-per-cent increase in flights with 9-per-cent more seats. Porter is offering 14-per-cent more flights. And Flair’s schedule shows a 30-per-cent increase in flights and available seats, according to Cirium, an aviation data company.

Airlines have scheduled 16,100 departures at Toronto Pearson for July, about 1,000 more than the previous July, according to Cirium.

In preparation, Nav Canada has 400 employees in training and 600 more will become qualified over the next few years, said Vanessa Adams, a spokeswoman for the agency. “Having enough people to deliver safe and efficient air navigation services is a top priority for Nav Canada,” Ms. Adams said.

Anup Srivastava, a finance professor at the University of Calgary, said many of the labor shortages that plagued airports last year are still an issue because wages have not risen enough to attract and retain workers. Plus, more passengers and flights mean airports and airlines will be stretched to capacity with little backup, so any problems will quickly ripple through the system, causing further headaches, Prof. Srivastava said.

He predicts planes will be full – and says passengers should brace for more ugly scenes at airports.

Deirdre Fulton, a partner at UK-based consultancy Midas Aviation, said passengers will have no tolerance for another season of poor service and holiday disappointments. And higher fares are just making expectations even greater.

“I think it will be hugely damaging for the industry to have another disastrous summer,” Ms. Fulton said.

For some passengers, the disappointments have begun. Some carriers have been trimming their spring schedules – canceling or merging flights. Porter has canceled large parts of its recent schedule as it tries to sell seats on its new fleet of Embraer E195-E2 jets. Jetlines has suspended its domestic routes and leased one of its two planes to Flair Airlines. And Air Canada and WestJet have scaled back flights in each other’s traditional territory, with Air Canada cutting flights in the West and WestJet in the East.

Flair canceled several flights in March after an aircraft leasing company repossessed four of Flair’s 19 planes. In December the carrier said it would have 28 aircraft by the summer but now says its fleet of 21 will be big enough to fly its schedule, which is 30-per-cent larger than the summer of 2022.

But these are near-term cancellations – the industry’s larger capacity for the summer is still in place.

Ms. Fulton said cancellations show airlines are matching capacity with demand and operating with discipline as they rebuild their balance sheets.

Prof. Srivastava sees it differently. He says the volatility is a sign of overcapacity or, in layman’s terms, too many airlines chasing too few passengers. “There is no place for so many players.”

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