Ottawa Knew of Staff Shortages at Airports, Briefing Note Shows, While Minister Blamed Travel Influx for Delays

Ottawa Knew of Staff Shortages at Airports, Briefing Note Shows, While Minister Blamed Travel Influx for Delays
Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in a file photo. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Peter Wilson

The federal government was made aware in the spring that airport security staffing across Canada was short by 25 percent, according to a briefing note.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) sent the note to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on May 13 to inform him that its staff numbers were down by almost a quarter due to pandemic layoffs, according to the document obtained by Blacklock’s Reporter.

“The Authority retained 75 percent of its workforce during the pandemic to assist with recovery,” CATSA reportedly wrote in the note titled “Airport And Flight Delays.”

“Screening contractors called back all available personnel in preparation for the summer peak.”

Alghabra said in the House of Commons in May and June that the airport delays were due to an influx of Canadians looking to travel after the pandemic, and did not cite staff shortages as a contributing factor.

“We are seeing that the surge for the demand to travel is putting a lot of pressure on our airports and our security systems,” he said on May 16. “We are making sure that we increase resources. We are working with airports, we are working with airlines, to address this issue. This is a priority.”
Alghabra also said on June 6 that airports were experiencing similar delays globally.
“We are seeing delays at airports across the entire world,” he said. “We are seeing an increased demand and appetite for people who want to travel, and the supply is trying to catch up.”

Two CATSA managers testified before the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance on June 7, citing staff shortages as a key issue causing delays.

“The problem at the airports today, and specifically the busiest airports in Canada, relates to the labour market and the staffing of screening officer positions by our third-party screening contractors,” said Nancy Fitchett, CATSA vice president of corporate affairs and chief financial officer.

“At this time, it is not a funding problem,” she said.

Kelsey MacTavish, CATSA senior director of operations, said a “significant number” of screening officers were laid off during the pandemic and that CATSA is in the process this spring of hiring and training thousands of replacements.

“Out of about 6,800 screening officers in the system, 1,250 returned last year and about 1,750 could have returned,” said MacTavish.

“Before the pandemic, we had about 7,400 screening officers. We currently have 6,800, and recruitment is ongoing.”

In a recent statement, Alghabra acknowledged airport delays are being caused by low staffing numbers, and said the government has been making “efforts to increase screening officer staff levels at all airports.”

Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman told the parliamentary transport committee on Aug. 8 that Alghabra should tell Canadians what the Liberal government is doing to fix airport delays.

“The Minister should address the critical issues facing our airports so Canadians can understand if the government is doing anything to fix the mess and not simply waiting out the height of peak travel season in an effort to further abdicate their responsibility,” she said, according to Blacklock’s.

The committee called on Alghabra to appear for questioning on the subject before Aug. 22.