I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting No. 27 of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Monday, August 8, 2022, the committee is meeting on the subject of Airport Delays and Cancellations. Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House Order of Thursday, June 23, 2022.
For members in the room, if you wish to speak, please raise your hand. For members on Zoom, please use the raise hand function. The clerk and I will manage the speaking order as best we can, and we appreciate your patience and understanding in this regard.
Members, today appearing before committee we have the , for the first half of our meeting.
For the second half of the meeting, we have, from the Department of Transport, Michael Keenan, deputy minister; Aaron McCrorie, associate assistant deputy minister, safety and security; Colin Stacey, director general, air policy; and Nicholas Robinson, director general, civil aviation.
From the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, we have Mike Saunders, president and chief executive officer; Nancy Fitchett, vice-president of corporate affairs and chief financial officer; and Neil Parry, vice-president, operations.
From the Canada Border Services Agency, we have Denis Vinette, vice-president, travellers branch.
From the Public Health Agency of Canada, we have Jennifer Lutfallah, vice-president, health security and regional operations branch.
We will now begin with the opening remarks from for five minutes.
Minister, thank you for joining us today. I turn the floor over to you.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I am grateful that I was invited to come back to speak with you today on this important issue.
So thank you for inviting me to appear before you.
I am joining you virtually today from the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
I am pleased to be with representatives from Transport Canada, with whom you're familiar: Michael Keenan, deputy minister of transport; Colin Stacey, director general, air policy; Aaron McCrorie, associate assistant deputy minister, safety and security; and Nicholas Robinson, director general of civil aviation.
I want to start by saying that the delays we've been seeing at airports are frustratingly unacceptable.
It's also unacceptable to see travellers sleeping on airport floors because a flight was delayed or cancelled.
Today I want to give you an update on the progress made, but also acknowledge that there's still work to be done and share what we are doing to address this.
To begin, after a difficult two years for the aviation sector, where they lost almost 90% of their business and faced significant layoffs, we saw a massive surge in demand for air travel of 252%. This is the increase in daily passenger volumes between January and August 2022 in Canada. In comparison, in the U.S. the volume per day increased by 64%.
I want to be clear. That's not an excuse. It's a fact. The aviation sector is a highly integrated sector. Transport Canada has control over certain aspects of it, but it does not manage the operations of most of its components.
Having said that, from day one we decided to focus on action rather than blame. Canadians rightly expect their government to do everything it can to address congestion causes and work with partners to implement solutions.
We have taken action since the start and will continue.
For example, we've hired more than 1,700 CATSA officers since May. The result is that 87% of passengers departing from the four largest airports were screened by CATSA within 15 minutes over the second week of August, and that is up from 63% over the first week of May. There's still more to be done, and we continue to hire CATSA officers every day.
Over the past few months, we've also addressed several potential operational bottlenecks, including public health measures like mandatory random testing, which is now being done outside of airports. As we know, airport operations are extremely interconnected, and coordination between partners is essential.
To highlight a few, Transport Canada sets airport and airline safety standards. Airlines are responsible for transporting their customers, for dealing with flight plans and for passenger baggage. Airports manage the flow of planes and passengers on their premises. CATSA is responsible for security screening, while CBSA is responsible for welcoming and processing international arrivals. Each of our partners has an important role to play in Canada's air sector, and if there are issues in one area, that affects other areas.
Over the last few months, I've personally met with airlines and airports across the country, as well as other partners in the industry. I've travelled and visited 13 airports, big and small, to see the situation first-hand. I'm happy to see encouraging results, such as only 2% of flights planned for Canada's top four airports over the second week of August being cancelled—which is, by the way, closer to the traditional average. This is a drop from 5% over the first week of July.
I also want to touch on another important subject: Passengers have rights.
Our government was the first government in Canadian history to recognize that and do something about it, in 2017. Our government worked with the Canadian Transportation Agency, or CTA, which is an independent quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator of Canada's national transportation system, to create the air passenger protection regulations a few years ago. Airlines must respect travellers' rights and compensate travellers who are eligible. The CTA, like any other tribunal, is responsible for receiving and analyzing complaints from travellers who believe they are entitled to compensation in instances where airlines have not provided it. Our government has recently given the CTA an additional $11 million to help them process the backlog. We're going to make sure that the CTA has the resources they need to fulfill their mandate under the air passenger protection regulations.
In closing, I want Canadians to know that their government has been actively working at addressing airport congestion caused by the surge in air travel demand. We are seeing encouraging results, but there's still more work to be done.
There are those who have a vested interest in embellishing reality and undermining confidence in our airline sector only to score political points. Our government, on the other hand, is focusing on tackling the real issues, working with partners and taking real action. Our plan is to do everything possible to reduce delays. That's what we did, and that's what we will continue to do.
We will continue to do everything possible to fix the situation.
We know that we all need to work together to resolve the situation, and I invite members of this committee to also present solutions.
Mr. Chair, that concludes my opening remarks, and I'm looking forward to answering the questions of my colleagues.
Minister, I'm glad to see your symptoms are mild.
I do appreciate the minister making time, but it is disappointing that he couldn't find two hours in the summer to appear in front of the transport committee, whereas his own party was part of a unanimous agreement for a two-hour appearance today.
More and more Canadians have seen for themselves that the problems experienced here in Canada are different and substantially worse than anywhere else in the world. We know that Pearson and Montreal have been ranked number one and number two of the worst airports in the world. That is an international embarrassment.
Among these delays and flight disruptions, there's a lot of finger pointing—airlines, airports and passengers themselves, as the minister alluded to in May—and we know that a lack of capacity, security agents, customs agents, navigation services and pandemic restrictions have all contributed to this chaos.
Does the minister believe that the government bears any responsibility in any way for what has transpired this summer, yes or no?
Mr. Chair, I think Canadians at home are rightfully frustrated.
I'm going to move on to something else, since we're not getting any kind of answer.
The mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app has been criticized by frontline border agents themselves. Those are folks who are part of the union, folks who work in the government. Mayors, tourism councils, chambers of commerce, our U.S. border partners.... Actually, it would be easier just to list those who support it. That's only the government, sir.
It is adding delays. It is quadrupling the time at customs. We know that. That's on record. People are being wrongfully put under house arrest because of a glitch. It functionally does not keep up with the political health restrictions. It has been cited as having privacy issues. The one-time secret exemption uncovered last week proves that it's not even about viral spread.
In the face of the overwhelming evidence of its problems and the criticism, why is the government not abandoning the mandatory use of ArriveCAN? Why are you instead making it permanent?
Thank you, Minister, for agreeing to appear before the transport committee today. It's nice to see that your symptoms of COVID are very mild and that you're able to give us one hour from your busy schedule.
Earlier, we heard from Ms. Lantsman the criticism that you're appearing here for one hour instead of two. I just want to remind everyone who is watching us and listening that the standard for ministerial appearances at the transport committee is in fact an hour. During the entire Harper government, which was almost 10 years, none of his various transport ministers appeared for longer than an hour at transport committee meetings.
Minister Alghabra also answered questions about airports when he last appeared at TRAN, on May 30. The officials appeared on this topic at TRAN on June 16. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to ask our questions of the relevant officials because the opposition members of this committee preferred to deal with unrelated motions.
Last but not less important, a briefing was provided by officials on July 21 to members of both the transport committee and the TRCM, at the Senate.
Minister, one of the main responsibilities of Transport Canada is security screening through CATSA. What concrete steps have you taken to improve CATSA screening times and what are the results we've seen so far?
Thank you very much, Ms. Koutrakis, for your question.
As I've stated before, I'm always happy to come back and once again answer questions of committee members, as I have done in the past, if needed.
From the beginning, when we started seeing the surge in demand, we worked with CATSA. I know Mike Saunders is here today, and I'm sure he'll be happy to answer your questions, as will his team. I sat down with Mike in late April and we talked about the sense of urgency that is required to respond to the surge in demand we're seeing. To CATSA's credit, they put all hands on deck and worked with their partners on ensuring they intensified and accelerated their hiring.
Let me take a step back. Since the winter, we have worked with CATSA on providing them additional resources in preparation for the restart of the aviation sector. In fact, it was in the estimates prior to congestion, and CATSA was receiving additional funding to help them prepare for that.
To summarize, just in the last three months, CATSA has hired 1,700 people. This is in an environment of labour shortage. There's more work that needs to be done, and I'm not claiming that all the problems have been solved, but it's great to see a significant improvement in processing times. As I stated in my opening remarks, today, at the four largest airports, 87% of passengers are screened within 15 minutes or less.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Minister, for being with us today despite your illness. It's much appreciated because the topic we're discussing is one that affects thousands, if not millions, of Canadians.
You mentioned in your opening remarks the extraordinary circumstances that we've seen over the past number of years. That is indeed true. Obviously, there's been a global pandemic, a surge in travel, and staffing shortages, and all of that has had an impact.
However, within that context, the treatment of air passengers has been atrocious. You mentioned people sleeping on the floors of our airports. The cancellations, the delays and the ways air passengers have been treated, both by the government and by the major airlines, have been nothing short of shameful. I think everyone in this meeting has seen this first-hand when travelling through Canada's major airports.
Your government brought in with great fanfare the air passenger bill of rights, or the APPR, which was supposed to have air passengers' backs. Can you tell me with a straight face that those regulations have protected air passengers over the past year?
Thank you very much, Mr. Iacono, for your question and well wishes.
Indeed, when COVID arrived, it did not arrive with an instruction manual. Governments around the world grappled with doing everything they could to protect the health and safety of their citizens.
We are now going through a different phase of the pandemic as we are restarting our economy and certainly witnessing unprecedented phenomena. We need to, first of all, do everything we can to focus on addressing congestion causes and other types of disruption to minimize the impact on our citizens and our economy.
I also think it's an opportunity for us to learn from this phase that we're going through. There will be a time to look back and write a manual, as you call it, Mr. Iacono, so that we can learn from what we went through and make sure we improve our systems for the future.
First of all, let me just say that during COVID, when, as I explained, 90% of customers in the aviation sector disappeared, we did everything we could to ensure that we maintained a resilient sector. We made sure that we provided access to wage subsidies so that employers could retain as many of their employees as possible. We provided financial supports to airports. We provided financial supports to airlines. We provided rent deferrals and infrastructure funding to help airports prepare and to help airlines remain resilient during an unprecedented time.
Then, as we were planning for the restart, we ensured that we worked with government agencies like CBSA, CATSA and others, and the CTA, to prepare them for what we predicted would be an increase in demand. As everyone knows today, the surge in demand far exceeded many predictions, but we did everything we could to prepare for it. We are seeing that the private sector, the public sector and all the sectors of our economy have been grappling with this restart, with the surge in demand, and we've been working on ensuring that the labour shortage we're experiencing is addressed as quickly as possible.
On the one hand, I find it curious that consumers have no recourse when the government causes their flights to be delayed or cancelled. On the other hand, we set rules and standards for businesses that the government doesn't impose on itself. There's a lack of consistency here.
Furthermore, with regard to the Canadian Transportation Agency, I'm thinking of the documents that were leaked and that prove that Air Canada knowingly asked its staff to lie to travellers about the reasons why flights were cancelled to avoid being assessed penalties.
We have to assume there are no consequences for that. Even if consumers file a complaint with the agency, there's a backlog of 18,000 complaints. So that complaint won't be processed for a month of Sundays. Consumer associations now suggest that people circumvent the agency and go straight to the courts.
Don't you think that's a disgrace, Minister?
What's it like for you to see how the Canadian Transportation Agency, which is supposed to be the watchdog for travellers' rights, is utterly ineffective.
Thank you, Minister.
Minister, a Canadian traveller recently left this public comment on Tripadvisor: “Just got back from a trip to Nevada flying out of Buffalo, and I am from Ontario, the airport is a dream, no line ups, quick through TSA check points, the airport is super clean.... Quick drive over to the airport. No Covid testing required! Crossing across the U.S. border is easy, they only ask if you are vaccinated and do not ask to see your test (I have crossed three times in the past two months, same thing every time) coming back across the border at the Rainbow [bridge] there were about 10 cars in front of us and it took for ever to get to the booth. So anyone thinking of ditching Pearson Airport and travelling down to Buffalo, do it—its worth it”.
Minister, Niagara Falls is the number one tourism, leisure destination in all of Canada, yet every taxpayer dollar that Destination Canada spends in international markets, including our prime market, the United States, for our border communities is being wasted by headlines that continually hit the press talking about Pearson Airport being the worst airport in the world.
My colleague just mentioned this. Sixty countries around the world have abandoned all air travel pandemic restrictions, including most of our European allies. Why does the government continue to cling to these restrictions, which only do a disservice and disincentivize travel to this country?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
It's an interesting meeting.
Minister, thank you, first of all, for being here today. It's good that you're trying to implement the business of good government versus the business of good politics, as we're seeing on the other side of the floor.
With that said, Minister, I know you have limited time left, but I do want to ask you one question with respect to flight delays. We are seeing similar flight delays, as mentioned earlier by a colleague, as well as cancellations occurring all over the world as well as here in Canada. Is it reasonable to say that these all have what we call knock-on effects on other countries? If so, what efforts, if any, are being made at the international level to better coordinate schedules to manage these very effects?
I want to attach my next question to some of the comments from Mr. Baldinelli, which are somewhat radical in nature, but I do want to be very specific and more in tune with what the reality of what's happening here in Niagara actually is, in particular as it relates to the efforts that you and , as well as , have made in the last few months in meeting with stakeholders here in Niagara to hear first the facts—not the rhetoric or the perception by some members of Parliament, but the facts.
To that, can you tell us what you've heard, for example, from Ron Rienas, the general manager of the Peace Bridge authority, from Tim Clutterbuck, the chair of the board of the Peace Bridge authority, as well as other stakeholders throughout Niagara Falls, Niagara Centre—my riding—as well as West Niagara and into St. Catharines? What have you heard and what are some of the efforts that you and other members of cabinet are making on behalf of those who express their concerns to you?
Thank you very much, Mr. Badawey.
That concludes the first hour of questioning.
Minister, on behalf of all members, I want to thank you once again for your appearance, particularly given what you're battling right now. We wish you the best of health in the days and weeks ahead.
Hon. Omar Alghabra: Thanks, everyone.
The Chair: Colleagues, if it's okay with you, we will move directly to questioning, seeing as there are no opening remarks.
We will begin the second hour of questioning with Mr. Barrett.
Mr. Barrett, the floor is yours. You have six minutes.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to start off with a key point on the premise of that question and then turn it over to Mr. McCrorie to further elaborate.
A really important point here is that I think the member is referring to media reports about the information filed by Transport Canada in a court case on the vaccine mandate. What the media failed to report was that Transport Canada tabled and provided extensive scientific evidence on the rationale for the vaccine mandate. That was not in the media report, but it was in the testimony, in the filings of Transport Canada.
We would be happy, if it would serve the committee, to provide a copy of that information, which was actually presented by Transport Canada in court.
The second point of context I'd like to provide is that throughout the two-plus years of COVID, COVID has not stood still. We have been evolving and adjusting the health measures at the border and in the transportation system throughout. In that process, we constantly seek updated information from the Public Health Agency of Canada. There's an ongoing process of pulling information in from the Public Health Agency of Canada as part of our work and using their expertise in health measures to guide the development of our measures.
Thank you to all the witnesses for joining us today, and the minister for taking time out of his schedule to do so as well. I hope he is feeling better and wish him a quick recovery.
I've been to a number of airports over the last few months, and some have been busy. Maybe I haven't had the same experiences as others. My experience has been great at all the airports I've been through.
I went through Toronto Pearson just last week. I was telling friends and family, as they thought I was going to be delayed, that I was through the lineups and security in under five minutes. I was really impressed with the great work that officials were doing there at security helping to process travellers through. My experience was great, quick and efficient.
I know other airports across the country have had challenges. My travels mostly go through the Calgary airport and I've never had to wait very long. As there are some particular problems at some of our major airports, how have the Calgary and Edmonton airports been doing when it comes to traffic and passenger movement?
Mr. Keenan, maybe you would like to answer this.
Sure. I'd say two things.
In terms of Calgary, first, interestingly enough, Calgary has had a really strong rebound in traffic. The Canadian air travel system has gone from a very low level, as the minister indicated, to 81% of what you would normally see in a busy summer. As of last week, Calgary was up to 86%, so it was a little heavy.
In terms of security screening at the Calgary airport, as the indicated, there were challenges in security screening and other areas adjusting to the rapid growth. Calgary shared in that experience but actually its numbers were pretty good.
I'd turn it over to our CATSA colleagues, and the CBSA may wish to comment on this, but both on CBSA processing on arrivals and on security screening, Calgary is doing a little better than the average of the top four airports. There is variation airport by airport, but Calgary tends to be on the positive side.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I'd be happy to respond to that.
There are different types of absenteeism, and I'll make a clarification, as I did at my last appearance, of what the incentive is intended to achieve. We want to incent screening officers to come into work for their scheduled shift when they are not sick and when they are not on vacation.
There are different types of absenteeism, as you point out. There's absenteeism when you're sick, and we trust our screening officers to act professionally, as they've done throughout the pandemic, and not come to work when they're sick. They demonstrated for over two years during the pandemic that they would stay home and be responsible.
When they have planned vacation, we encourage them to take it because, as you've talked about for almost two hours now, it is an extremely busy environment, and they have done a noble job under these circumstances, under these pressures.
However, there is the occurrence from time to time at different locations where, for a scheduled shift, there is something called book-offs. We're trying to reduce that by offering our contractors the opportunity to bill us for their programs. Those programs allow that, if you are sick for a couple of days, you are not disqualified from the incentive program. For the further weeks throughout the summer, you can earn up to $200 per cycle for coming in for your scheduled shift.
Mr. Chair, I don't know which department the honourable member is referring to, but I could offer one comment on this, and perhaps my colleagues at CBSA would like to comment.
It's an important point of context that ArriveCAN operates at the land border and the air border. Here we're talking about air congestion. One of the very challenging situations we had in air congestion was getting people fast enough through the customs hall at Pearson. As the has indicated, earlier in this ramp-up of travel we saw some significant incidents of planes being held at the gate and the metering of passengers into the customs hall.
We have an airport operations recovery group with the airports and airlines—all the partners, including Transport, CBSA, PHAC, CATSA—and a lot of work was done to try to work through how to fix that. A number of changes were made that have proven to be very successful because the number of holds for international arrivals has dropped 90%. It was like 300 per week in May, when we were at about 65,000 people arriving a day. It's now down to like 40 a week, even though we have 90,000 people arriving per day.
A number of changes were made in the management of the customs hall. Colleagues in CBSA—
I want to say a big thank you to my colleague, the , for asking me to fill in for him at this committee meeting today.
We've heard a lot today about one topic in particular, and that's the airline passenger bill of rights. That was pushed by a good friend of mine, a man by the name of Woodrow French, who lives not too far from my home. We live in the same town. He was at it for years. Finally a government listened, and that government was the Liberal government. I think it was at the time.
To the officials, does the airline passenger bill of rights do what it was intended to do when it comes to protecting airline passengers? Should it be tweaked if it's not doing its intended end-of-the-day product, protection for anyone using our airlines, whether domestically or commercially?
Next, we hear a lot about mandates, whether it's vaccination mandates or masking mandates or anything else, from the Conservative side, who never, ever supported the introduction of any mandates whatsoever, whether it be masking or vaccination or travel restrictions. Do you believe that the mandates were necessary programs to bring in when COVID first struck our area here in Canada and any of the provinces? Do you think that because of the mandates we've managed to save thousands and thousands of lives? There are people still dying from COVID, but of course, as we know, when it first came to our country and exploded in many provinces, many people did die from the disease—probably people who shouldn't have died or wouldn't have died, only for COVID, which was the main contributor to it.
Do you think we should still pay attention to the public health officials who are recommending that we do this or we do that, or that it's time to drop this or drop that—in essence, I guess, at the end of the day, protecting Canadians' lives, whether they're coming from abroad, or travelling from province to province, or using any entity for travel, whether it be ferries, trains or planes?
The CBSA plans every year for its seasonal fluctuations in traffic in the various modes—land, airports and through the cruise ship season—and aligns its resources and moves them accordingly.
In support of the air transportation sector, we hire student border services officers every year, and they come on strength after their school year ends in April. They help us and we retain some of them through the balance of the year so they're ready to be on site the following year. They supplement our workforce.
In terms of the overall workforce, like other sectors, we have had individuals who, as a result of COVID and other measures, have been unable to attend the workplace, and we've respected that and we've worked with them. They've continued to contribute to our border services by supporting the front line through other venues and other programs to ensure that we could sustain the capacity.
We continue to advance the staffing, and I'm pleased to report that we've actually doubled our recruitment target for the next two years in order to offset the loss of some officers as a result of the COVID restrictions that may have affected them and their ability to return to the workplace.
My question is for Mr. Keenan.
We heard a lot of claims, especially from my colleagues in the Conservative Party, that only the federal government supports keeping ArriveCAN.
I'm just curious to know if you're aware of a letter that was sent to the chair of the Standing Committee on International Trade earlier this year. I will quote Lorrie McKee, who is the director of public affairs and stakeholder relations at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority: “Starting on June 28, travellers arriving from international destinations now have the option at Toronto Pearson and Vancouver International Airport of completing their customs declaration in ArriveCAN 72 hours before travel, reducing the time they need to spend at a kiosk in the customs hall by up to 50%. We have already seen significant improvements and benefits as a result of this digital integration.”
Besides the GTAA having this opinion, have you heard from any other airport authorities that share the same opinion of ArriveCAN?
Mr. Chair, I could offer a general answer to the member's question and then turn it over to a colleague from CBSA.
On this issue, I would say that, as I indicated in an answer to an earlier question, a lot of hard slogging was done with all partners to get the throughput up through the customs hall and move a lot of people through a small space as traffic came back. There was a lot of really good work our CBSA and GTAA colleagues did in terms of passenger facilitation and passenger flow wayfinding. They could talk about that in some detail, but at the heart of that strategy was using electronic tools and digital systems to get people through faster. That included adding a number of kiosks to the customs hall at Pearson. It added a number of eGates, and the new functionality that CBSA brought on was the eDeclaration, which is integrated into ArriveCAN.
I would say that, in our discussions with industry and the air operations recovery group, the expansion, the use and improving the functionality of digital tools to make for a faster and easier travel process for passengers and to facilitate the international arrivals process are actually a centre point of our discussions. All the industry partners support finding the best combination of tools that respect the privacy of passengers but use digital technology to facilitate that passenger flow, and we're continuing discussions with them almost daily in terms of how to keep making progress in that area.
I don't know, Denis, if you want to add to that, because you guys are on the sharp end of delivering a lot of this.
We've been on the path to modernization of digital services for many years, and that led to the birth of the kiosks that we've seen in the airports. We are already working to transition to eGates with our air industry partners, and we've always had a plan to modernize through digital offerings, through various platforms. ArriveCAN was required for the capture of the public health measures, but the opportunity to provide your advance declaration was something that we already had in the books in terms of the type of work we were going to deliver. We had an opportunity as we worked with the airlines and the airport authorities to pursue that now, to further expedite the passage through the airports.
I can offer that you save about 30% of your passage time using a primary inspection kiosk. You save about 50% of your passage time using an eGate if you've provided your advance declaration. We are reaping the rewards of its use, already achieving about 35% of passenger traffic in the three airports where it's currently offered.
Digital services are one of those elements that the CBSA was pursuing and will continue to pursue across all modes, looking to bring that to our land border where we have significant masses, as well as those who enter Canada through pleasure marine craft and aircraft.