by Steven Tufts
Airport workers are on the front lines dealing with irate passengers experiencing flight delays. The pandemic travel restrictions and testing regimes put in place were manageable when air travel was a trickle, but passenger traffic has increased significantly in recent months.
The result is slow processing times at border and security checkpoints as travellers are screened for proof of vaccination or selected for random testing. Delays have a cascade effect throughout the entire system as backlogs mount, connecting flights missed, and frustrated passengers sit on tarmacs well after landing.
The federal government has responded to immense pressure to eliminate restrictions. However, it is unlikely that delays will simply disappear. Pent up travel demand will see the increase in passengers continue in the summer months. Increased air travel in an already stressed system will inevitably lead to problems.
Current air travel delays are much related to structural labour shortages. An aging workforce and displacement of workers to sectors that were hiring during the pandemic have created a long-term challenge.
At the beginning of the pandemic, employers at Pearson airport were warned that labour shortages would develop during recovery. Employers such as Air Canada reduced its labour force through buyouts and layoffs and now need people to work.
The union representing workers at the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) also warned airports and the government of looming labour shortages and the lack of training of new agents prior to the pandemic. Today, agents are working unsustainable amounts of overtime and there simply are not enough agents to inspect air, sea, and land ports of entry, despite the promise of new hires.
The CBSA is not the only airport employer facing labour shortages as baggage handlers and ramp workers, often employed by contractors, are also in demand. Subcontracting these tasks to multinational firms that continue to “flip contracts” to reset wages as they pursue low-wage strategies has proven to be a disastrous model.
Management is clinging to technological solutions that promise more than they can deliver. “Contactless” technologies, such as facial recognition to replace service agents at boarding gates, or new infrastructure to automate customs declarations upon entry, are expensive and controversial. These technologies also take years to implement and require passenger education and patience. In some cases, border agents’ processing times are faster than automated kiosks requiring tired passengers to engage in data-entry after a 9-hour flight.
Any air travel recovery strategy will have to centre workers rather than displace them. The Ontario government’s Skills Development Fund has invested $1.6 million in an employment portal for Pearson to assist in recruitment, but this is only a baby-step.
A national labour force development strategy needs to be in place to address recruitment, training, career development, and the implementation of new technologies in the sector. An industry seeking to recover profits lost during the pandemic through low-wages, understaffing, and “no wage” technologies will only see more people grounded and disgruntled long-after the pandemic ends.