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Passengers stayed on planes as COVID-19 protocols halted traffic

Airports are simply not designed for customs to be such a lengthy process, the group says

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OTTAWA — International arrivals at Canadian airports are so heavily secured that people are being held on planes for over an hour after landing because there isn’t physically enough space to accommodate travelers’ lineups, the Canadian Airports Council says.

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Blaming COVID-19 protocols, the council has urged the federal government to eliminate random testing and public health questions at customs to reduce the severe delays passengers face upon arrival in Canada.

The extra steps mean it’s taking four times longer to process people when they arrive than it was before the pandemic, said the Council’s interim president, Monette Pasher. That was fine when people weren’t out, but now it’s become a serious problem.

“We see that we clearly cannot have these public health requirements and tests at our limits when we travel regularly again,” she said.

The situation is particularly dire at Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson International, where passengers from 120 flights on Sunday were held in their planes awaiting their turn to register at customs.

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Sometimes the wait is 20 minutes, sometimes more than an hour, Pasher said.

Airports just aren’t designed for customs to be such a lengthy process, she said, and there isn’t the space to accommodate people. The airport is also not the right place for COVID-19 tests, especially since tests are rarely required in the community.

“As we return to regular travel with these health protocols and testing, the two cannot coexist without significant pressure and strain on our system,” Pasher said.

The government is aware of frustrating queues at airports, the transport minister said in a statement.

“Current health measures are based on advice from public health experts to protect Canadians. We will continue to base our actions and adjustments on their expert advice,” the statement said.

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The ministry is working with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to post more enforcement officers at checkpoints, the minister’s office said, and the agency is working to hire more.

The government will not ask airlines to cut their flight schedules, the statement said.

Between May 1 and May 7, about 1.3 percent of 1,920 travelers tested at airports tested positive for COVID-19.

For comparison, 3.46 percent were positive between April 1 and April 9, despite significantly more testing being done during that time.

Public health measures have been increased and decreased over the course of the pandemic as waves of the virus have come and gone. At the moment they are the most restrictive they have been in months, as vaccinated travelers are only tested on a random basis.

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The requirements are not in line with the comparison countries, said the conservative traffic critic Melissa Lantsman. She said she wants to know why the Canadian government is acting on advice that differs from that of other countries.

“We practically take the government at its word that they receive advice and act on it, but they have not shared any of it with the Canadian public,” she said.

The long delays at airports are sending a negative message to travelers, and she worries about the impact on Canadian tourism as the industry struggles to bounce back this season after the pandemic lull.

“It’s telling you to go somewhere else, that we’re not open for business,” she said.

On Monday, several industry groups, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, made a plea for less COVID-19 restrictions before the House of Commons Transport Committee.

“These are costing our economy enormously and damaging our international reputation as a premier destination for tourism, international conferences and sporting events,” Robin Guy, the chamber’s senior director for transport policy, told the committee.

The witnesses called on the government to review its COVID-19 regulations at the border and scrap those that are no longer necessary.

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