Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Thornhill for having raised this important question, which I know is a concern for many Canadian travellers.
I will begin by saying that I understand and share their frustration. I myself am a traveller, and I have experienced delays at the airport. I know it can be aggravating. I also know that airport delays have an economic cost and that they do not help the recovery of our airline and tourism sectors, which are major economic drivers for our country. I also recognize that all Canadians, myself included, are tired of the COVID-19 protocols and hope to return to a prepandemic normal.
Since the vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and since we have observed an improvement in the situation in our hospitals and communities, it is understandable that many Canadians are increasingly eager to see the remaining public health measures relaxed so they can return to their prepandemic lives. COVID-19 fatigue is a real thing and a perfectly normal instinct. Like many of my colleagues in the House and many Canadians from coast to coast to coast, I do not want these measures to stay in place any longer than necessary.
I hear every day from Canadians who are angry that some mandates remain in place. I am sure we all do. Like them, I would like to put this long ordeal behind us, and yet COVID is not behind us. It is very much still in our midst. One lesson that many Canadians learned over the course of this pandemic was the danger of relaxing public health measures prematurely. Over and over, we saw this play out in different jurisdictions across the country and around the world.
Policy-makers, eager to deliver a return to normal to their constituents, eased measures prematurely only to be faced with a new variant: a new wave of disease that started filling up ICU wards again. It was overwhelming our health sector and prompting new, sometimes stricter, lockdowns. This back-and-forth pattern was very damaging for our economy, as it made it difficult for businesses to make future plans and to retain workers and customers. What is more, it sapped hope and exhausted Canadians.
Luckily, the remarkably quick development and deployment of very effective vaccines has greatly improved the outlook we currently face. However, we should remember the hard-fought lessons we learned. Countries such as Canada may have successfully vaccinated much of their populations, but lower-income countries have not had the same access to vaccines, which is providing opportunities for new variants to emerge. While we know much more about COVID than we did a couple of years ago, much remains unknown about aspects of the virus, such as long COVID.
Given these unknowns, let us remember the benefits of a cautious approach. That has been the approach taken in Canada in general, and by this government in particular. By deploying a series of public health measures, including in the airline sector, we were relatively successful in protecting Canadians' lives and health.
COVID-19 claimed the lives of approximately 40,000 Canadians. That is tragic, but let us compare our situation with that of our neighbours to the south, where more than a million Americans died of COVID-19. Even if we take the different populations into account, the difference is staggering. According to the latest estimates published by Our World in Data, the United States suffered three times more deaths per million people than Canada.
Lastly, here is the most important yardstick: Although we need to take into account the inconveniences and economic disruptions caused by airport delays and find solutions to minimize these impacts, we also need to weigh them against the lives of Canadians, our grandparents, our spouses, our children and our friends.
Let me turn now from the big picture to the more specific topic raised by the opposition motion today dealing with airport delays.
First, let me say that Canada is not alone in seeing such delays. There are, in fact, reports from all over the world of similar delays. They are not always caused by the same factors. Sometimes there are shortages of baggage handlers, sometimes of border agents and sometimes of security screeners, and sometimes large numbers of flights are cancelled unexpectedly. It all amounts to passengers stuck in long lines, some of whom miss their flights and all of whom experience frustration and stress.
For example, in April, The New York Times wrote, per The Latch, that “the post-pandemic return to travel has simply swamped unprepared airlines”. The Latch continued:
[They] have been unable to hire adequate staff due to the financial pressures brought about during lockdowns. The big picture is that airlines simply didn’t predict people would be travelling again in such huge numbers so soon. Layoffs or resignations, in the tens of thousands across the global industry, have just not been made up for.
Similarly, on May 5, Euronews reported that:
Although air travel is still below 2019 levels, traffic peaks are in fact higher than pre-pandemic levels at many larger airports.
“Coping with this sudden increase and concentration of air traffic has been challenging for airports and their operational partners—in particular ground handlers,” says the joint statement from [Airports Council International] Europe....
“This has resulted in an increase in flight delays and cancellations, and more generally a degraded passenger experience at many airports.”
Along the same lines, NCA NewsWire in Australia reported this on May 9:
Sydney airport has once again descended into chaos as staff shortages continue to create massive queues due to closed security gates.
Both international and domestic terminals are impacted by the delays forcing thousands of passengers to wait in queues.
Many have taken to social media to vent their frustration at the travel chaos as the airport enters its third month since international borders reopened and increased the number flights moving in and out of the major airport.
The article also notes, “A spokesman for Sydney Airport predicted at the time that major delays would run through the school holidays, peaking over Easter and Anzac Day with passenger levels close to 90 per cent pre-pandemic.”
This may sound familiar to consumers of Canadian news over the last couple of weeks. The fact that other countries are also experiencing similar problems does not make things any less frustrating for Canadian travellers. However, it does provide some necessary context in the face of commentators who claim that we have never seen the chaos we are experiencing at Canadian airports currently or that Canada's reputation will be irreparably harmed.
With a view to providing the necessary context, let me explain why there are delays at Canadian airports. The simplest and most common explanation is that the delays are caused by a shortage of CATSA screening officers. However, there are other factors that also come into play.
CATSA is indeed having difficulty rehiring staff in prepandemic numbers. However, as Minister Alghabra recently pointed out, CATSA's staffing levels have returned to approximately 90%, while the travel volume has returned to only about 70% of prepandemic levels. It is more than a simple labour shortage issue.
What appears to be happening is that the airlines are providing less accurate information about anticipated passenger volumes, and in a less timely manner. It is therefore difficult for CATSA managers to properly plan staffing levels. I am not saying that it is the airlines' fault. It is not surprising that they are finding it hard to predict how fast the number of passengers will increase and to plan the number of flights accordingly. This highlights the need for better communication between the various stakeholders in the airline sector, and that is exactly what the minister and Transport Canada are working on. I will get into more detail shortly.
Another example of the complexity of the problem is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are also having problems rehiring staff to prepandemic levels. This sometimes results in U.S. officials asking CATSA screeners to slow down or pause the security screening of travellers. CBSA is also experiencing similar staffing issues, resulting in longer than usual lines for travellers arriving from international destinations.
In fact, worker shortages being experienced all across airports, the air sector and the labour market more broadly are affecting how efficiently our airports work. For example, some CATSA employees who were laid off during the pandemic have since been hired by airport subcontractors as baggage handlers or in other roles at airports. Again, I offer this to provide necessary context so that Canadians can understand what is behind some of the delays at our airports.
My friends on the opposition side will oversimplify things and suggest that it is only public health measures that are slowing down air travellers and clogging our airports, but that is simply not the case.
They are also unaware of the advantages of the measures still in place. For example, random testing in airports helps us detect in a timely manner new variants that might be entering the country and to trace their origins. This will not prevent variants from entering Canada, but it will provide invaluable data and help our health care sector prepare for any changes. It could help slow the spread of new variants and save us precious time. Contrary to what some have suggested, we cannot get the same result simply by analyzing the general population's wastewater.
Other measures such as mandatory vaccination, ArriveCAN and mask wearing provide travellers and airline workers with additional layers of protection, while offering Canadian travellers peace of mind, since they know they are travelling with other people who have chosen to be vaccinated. Vaccination is the best protection against the most serious consequences of COVID-19.
My Conservative colleague from Thornhill has selectively chosen to quote from testimony heard from business groups, but she neglects to mention that when asked at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities whether they would disregard advice from public health officials to maintain certain public health measures, they demurred, acknowledging they were not public health experts. I think this is important for Canadians to retain. They should weigh this when considering calls to immediately dismantle public health protections and should consider who is proposing such a step and what that person's qualifications are.
This also reminds me to consider another source: the Conservative Party of Canada itself. I think it is important for Canadians to remember this is the same party whose former leader allowed unvaccinated candidates to go into seniors' homes during the most recent federal election. It is a party that had in its ranks an MP who presented a petition calling on the government to suspend the use of all COVID‑19 vaccines.
Another Conservative member claimed his own research showed that people were “13 times more likely to die from the delta variant if [they] were double vaccinated than if [they] were unvaccinated.” Needless to say, this was completely false.
The Conservative member for Sarnia—Lambton was ultimately forced to apologize after minimizing the risks of COVID by comparing it to polio, a disease that at its peak in 1953 claimed the lives of 500 Canadians. Let us remember we are now tragically at over 40,000 lives lost due to COVID.
The Conservative leader at the time remarked about these comments, stating:
There’s a big difference between advocating for your constituents who may need reasonable accommodation and creating confusion about public health measures. It’s a great example of why members of Parliament of all stripes should let the professionals, let the public health officials, let the physicians answer questions about the efficacy of vaccines.
I agree. Let us let our public health experts determine the most appropriate time to phase out the remaining public health measures at our airports.
With this essential reminder out of the way, I will now address what Minister Alghabra and our government are doing to help our airports and Canadian travellers.
For now, I will leave aside the many billions of dollars our government has provided to help support the airline sector during the pandemic, including some $1.4 billion earmarked exclusively for airports under the airport critical infrastructure program, the airport relief fund, the enhanced airports capital assistance program, the rent relief for airport authorities, and broader initiatives from which airports benefited, such as the Canada emergency wage subsidy.
As I mentioned earlier in my speech, at first glance, many of the problems currently being experienced in our airports seem to stem from more than a simple shortage of security screeners. The larger problem seems to be that different parts of the system are not communicating effectively with one another and not working together to better plan for increased passenger volumes as the air sector recovers.
As I have mentioned throughout, we recognize the impact that wait times at some Canadian airports are having on travellers and we are working with our partners to take action and find solutions. CATSA is working to increase the number of screening officers at passenger screening checkpoints. There are currently approximately 400 new screening officers in different phases of their training across the country.
Last week, Minister Alghabra met with Mike Saunders, the CEO of CATSA, and in the previous week he met with the four major airports to hear—