It’s 4:30 a.m. and Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 3 is already bustling.
Hundreds of people wait in lines snaking around Canada’s busiest airport as passengers arrive to catch the first flights of the day — all hoping things go according to plan and they’ll get to their destinations on time with their luggage.
It sounds like a simple request, but it’s one that didn’t happen for thousands of people last year as travel rebounded for the first time since pandemic-related restrictions grounded planes. The restart has been a bumpy ride — for Pearson in particular where flight cancellations and delays, hours-long lineups and lost and missing luggage have all been the cause of passenger frustration and media attention.
- WATCH | The behind-the-scenes look at Pearson Airport on The National at 9 p.m. ET Friday on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.
Last summer, Pearson was the world’s worst airport for delays from May to July, until it slipped to second worst in August, according to U.S. flight-tracking platform FlightAware. It was ranked among the top five airports for worst customer service, according to a September survey by J.D. Power.
The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), which operates Pearson, says that more than 25 million travellers passed through the airport during the first nine months of 2022. A sharp increase from the 6.8 million the year before, but far less than in 2019 before the pandemic, when more than 38 million passengers came through.
With March break kicking off this weekend, the number of passengers is expected to spike again. The GTAA anticipates that as many as 125,000 people will pass through the airport each day on Saturday and Sunday — a 30 per cent increase from the same time last year.
As Pearson readies for what will likely be a hectic travel season, CBC News got an inside look at what makes Canada’s busiest airport tick.
Post-pandemic travel takes off
GTAA President and CEO Deborah Flint says the airport had a tougher time than most rebounding from the pandemic.
“We were the only global connecting hub that stayed shut down for as long and for as low activity as we did,” she said. “So we had a very significant burden.”
Flint says Pearson saw a 180 per cent increase in passenger activity in less than six months and that various parts of the operations and businesses at Pearson are still “grappling with the effects of the pandemic and its recovery.”
She says she’s optimistic that increased staffing levels across the airport will make for a better experience.
“Can I guarantee you the future? No one in this industry can, because weather events can happen,” Flint said.
“But what I can say is that everyone across the board is more prepared to recover faster and better for the passengers than before.”
Former airline industry insider John Gradek isn’t so sure.
Airports dealing with multiple partners isn’t a new phenomenon and isn’t unique to Toronto, he says, noting the air travel industry as a whole faced “massive cuts and massive staff reductions” during the pandemic.
“Pearson has a ways to go to get its mojo back,” said Gradek, a former Air Canada executive who is now a lecturer in the aviation management program at Montreal’s McGill University.
He says there’s a lot riding on the airport getting its act together since it’s a major hub for Canadian travel.
“It’s a monster. It’s a big airport. It is key to the success of the Canadian aviation industry.”
Gradek attributes some of last year’s chaos to the fact that airlines sold so many tickets and filled so many flights so quickly that the airport couldn’t handle the increase. By the time April rolled around, he said flights in July and August were full.
“Pearson said, ‘Whoops, we’re not ready for it.’ And then the airline said … ‘Too bad, so sad. Planes are full.’ “
Montreal-based airline Air Transat is one of 44 airlines operating out of Pearson. It had the fewest number of delays last year compared to its major Canadian competitors, according to Gradek.
It’s 6 a.m. and Air Transat’s Toronto station manager, Judith MacDonald, is ensuring the day’s operation is running smoothly.
She says it’s important for people to know there are multiple layers that go into getting passengers and their baggage aboard their planes.
“It’s a whole community working together. There’s tons [that] goes into it,” she told CBC News while standing on the tarmac in front of Air Transat’s largest plane as it was loaded by about seven members of the ground crew and a supervisor. It’s a big job that MacDonald says takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
Though ongoing labour issues continue to plague multiple areas of the airline industry, especially ground crew, MacDonald says Air Transat is equipped to deal with them.
“We all work, again, as a community to [get] contingencies in place to make sure the passengers are on their way.”
As part of its exclusive access to Pearson, CBC News got a tour from Jose Salamo, the GTAA Director of Baggages Services.
All baggage destined for flights goes through the GTAA’s intricate system — about 34 kilometres of conveyor belts between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 in total. Salamo’s crew is responsible for the transportation of bags between these areas. It’s then up to the airlines and ground support staff to load bags onto planes.
A large part of the chaos last year was a result of problems with luggage. Images of suitcases piled up around the terminals and in the baggage hall were widely shared on social media.
Salamo says the problems were a result of several issues, including staffing, mechanical and electrical issues and IT considerations — for the GTAA and the airlines.
“There’s lots of moving pieces,” he said, noting that on a “good day” his team of about 120 people can handle upwards of 115,000 outbound bags across both terminals.
“If there are staffing concerns, there are numerous instances that can lead to a bad day,” said Salamo. “And that obviously elevates the stress level of everyone involved.”
He says there are sometimes piles of luggage scattered around the airport because they have a limited storage capacity.
“We don’t want to store them outside. We do need to store them in an environmentally safe environment,” he said, noting that for this reason, bags are stored either in baggage halls, other sections of the baggage system or at departures.
Eyes in the skies
When things do go wrong, Sonny Parmar is one of the first to know. He’s one of six GTAA duty managers who work in two shifts per day making sure everything runs smoothly.
He says that in the back of his mind is always the knowledge that because Toronto Pearson is a massive hub connection, whatever happens here “could affect air travel worldwide.”
Parmar’s office is in the Integrated Operations Control Centre, the airport’s central nervous system that resembles a NASA control room with countless screens.
He’s currently tracking a snowstorm headed toward Toronto. It’s not a problem unique to Pearson or air travel, but it’s a major issue that causes flight delays and cancellations, and one Parmar is tasked with overseeing.
In this case it means cancelling flights.
Parmar says the GTAA gives the airlines information about the weather and the number of arrivals and departures it has available per hour. He says the airlines use that to decide what flights to cancel and how to manage their schedules.
Approximately 400 organizations and agencies play a part in Pearson’s ability to run smoothly — including retailers, airlines, third-party service providers and government agencies like the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CTSA), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. GTAA employees make up about three per cent of the workforce.
Getting the flights in and out of the air falls on Nav Canada — a privately run, not-for-profit corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil aviation system.
Kurtis Arnold, an air traffic controller with Nav Canada says that Pearson is such a hub for air traffic, “it’s the place to be,” because the pressure is really on.
“You can’t tell your planes to stop, right? They’re moving through the air somewhere between three and six miles a minute. And it’s our job to manage those aircraft as they’re moving and get them lined up to land.”
He says the journey back post pandemic has been an interesting one.
“I think we all expected the traffic to come back slowly. And what we found was that there was this great pent up demand.”
Arnold says that demand, along with high turnover during the pandemic, has meant they’ve had to very quickly get everybody up to speed.
“It’s nice to see the people travelling again,” he said. “I mean, that’s what we want to see.”
March break will test Pearson
What those passengers want to see is a smooth airport experience. Whether they’ll get it at Pearson this weekend remains to be seen.
Gradek, the former industry insider, says the first weekend of March break will be a telling test to see if Pearson’s infrastructure “is able to handle a very short-term peak demand.”
The GTAA announced in late February that it is putting hard limits on the number of flights to “flatten peak-hour schedules.” It says it’s been working with airlines on the plan since August.
He isn’t sure if the airport is doing enough to manage travel, but Gradek says the only way to find out is to actually see it in operation.
“And that’s where I’m crossing my fingers … and waiting to see what happens.