Airport chaos is a threat to Canada’s brand

After more than two years, Canadian travel demand has finally returned – and with that has come long lines and delays at some of the busiest airports in the country. Many travellers, particularly those at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, are facing long lines at security and customs, and some international passengers are waiting for hours on the tarmac due to delays. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government is working on reducing wait times at Canadian airports, hiring hundreds of new agents for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and creating a task force to address the bottlenecks.

On this episode of Editor’s Edition, Yahoo Finance Canada’s Alicja Siekierska and the Public Policy Forum’s Sean Speer discuss what impact the situation at Canadian airport could have on travel and tourism in the country. "At this stage, there is a threat of a kind of brand erosion for Canada as a travel destination and for Canadian airlines as a means of travelling internationally," Speer said.

If you have any policy-related questions, or feedback about the show, please email alicja@yahoofinance.com.

Video Transcript

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SEAN SPEER: I would just say this, Alicja. I think that at this stage, there is a threat of a kind of brand erosion for Canada as a travel destination and for Canadian airlines as a means to traveling internationally. And in recent days, a high-profile podcaster has posted about his experience at Pearson.

Last I saw, Alicja, that video had something like 4 or 5 million views. And so if you're thinking about where to travel this summer or how to travel, I think people will be inclined to stay away from Pearson in general and Burnie in particular and Canada in general and to stay away from Air Canada, not just because of the delays but because, I think, a perception that the company has not handled it very well.

I have enormous sympathy for people who are going through these experiences at Pearson airport and dealing with Air Canada in these circumstances. Imagine having young children and being stuck in lines for hours and hours and missing flights and having to make new arrangements. So I guess the net effect is that, while the government and the different airlines are pointing fingers at one another, the one thing that they have fundamentally in common is it's in both their interest to solve these issues and protect people's perceptions of Canada as a destination and our airlines as a means of transportation, or both will suffer greatly.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: I think you've already seen business groups and leaders kind of raising the alarm on that front and the impact that this could have on tourism. It was Janet De Silva, who's president and CEO of the Toronto Regional Board of Trade was in particular flagging this at a press conference last month, saying that we must demonstrate to potential visitors, especially our business visitors, that they can travel easily and without undue challenges to our region. We need to make this a good experience. We are painfully and inexcusably behind in Toronto.

So it's clearly a concern that's not just an inconvenience for travelers but potentially for businesses and the greater community here in Ontario and obviously in cities across the country. So what needs to be done here? What should the government and different stakeholders here be doing to fix this?

SEAN SPEER: I mean, in no particular order, I think probably eliminating some of these ongoing restrictions, including the use of the AirCan app seems like low hanging fruit too. Moving ahead with more staffing at CASA to try to get people through security lines faster.

I think customs staff is a big piece of the puzzle, because the waits just aren't at security proper. They're at customs and basically all the way through the process. And then it seems to me, the crucial part is Air Canada needs to make sure that its customer service capacity is greater and that the people who are on the front lines are showing a degree of empathy.

I mentioned the experience of Ryan Whitney, this former hockey player who's now a podcaster. He talked about his experience at Pearson when he was there for something like 20 hours in the past few days. The most infuriating part was he just kept getting shifted around by different Air Canada desks after sitting and standing in line for hours and hours.

So even if the airlines ultimately think the government is responsible, I think there's still an onus and a kind of self-interest on their part to make sure that they're not exacerbating the problem by providing really poor-quality customer service. So I think there's kind of a pox on everyone's house and a need for everyone to do their part to try to solve for these issues before they create kind of lasting damage for the country and for these airlines.

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