Transport minister says COVID-19 to blame for airport delays, flight cancellations
OTTAWA -- Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told the House of Commons transport committee the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting labour shortages are to blame for the significant wait times at Canadian airports, and said the ArriveCAN app is here to stay.
While Alghabra's office said the situation has been improving in recent weeks, significant delays and cancellations have plagued Canadian airports for months — even leading to Toronto's Pearson Airport being dubbed the worst airport in the world for flight delays.
Testifying remotely while he quarantines following a COVID-19 infection, Alghabra said there is “still work to be done,” but listed hiring more staff, and moving random mandatory COVID-19 testing off site from airports, as ways the government has tried to reduce airport bottlenecks.
“I want to be clear, that’s not an excuse, but it’s a fact,” he said, explaining demand for travel surged beyond what was expected.
During Alghabra’s one-hour testimony, committee opposition members grilled the minister on the causes of the delays, who is to blame, and the treatment of air passengers, which NDP MP Taylor Bachrach called “shameful.”
Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman called it “disappointing” that Alghabra’s appearance before the committee lasted just an hour amidst the busy summer travel season. She also called the delays, specifically at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, an “international embarrassment.”
When Lantsman asked whether the government bears any responsibility in the delays, Alghabra replied that he “blames it on COVID.”
Lantsman later said she was “not getting any kind of answer” to her questions, before pivoting to discussion of the oft-criticized ArriveCAN app and why the government is keeping it.
“ArriveCAN is not contributing to the congestion,” Alghabra replied. “In fact, ArriveCAN is a useful tool that helps verify the vaccination status of an individual before arriving at our borders.”
Still, opposition MPs continued to press the minister on the decision to continue using the app, despite the heavy critiques it’s drawn.
Alghabra — as well as witnesses from the Department of Transport, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the Canada Border Services Agency, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) — was asked about the app’s perceived inefficacy, problems with the software, and privacy concerns.
A glitch with the app last month forced more than 10,000 people to unnecessarily quarantine.
But Alghabra defended the technology, maintaining that it saves time to digitize a process that would otherwise take longer to complete manually.
In a later interruption and interjection-filled exchange between the transport minister and Conservative MP Tony Baldinelli, the latter pressed Alghabra on whether the government is discouraging travellers from visiting Canada because of wait times at the borders.
“There’s nobody to blame but this Liberal government,” Baldinelli said, warning of a possible “self-inflicted” loss of another tourism year if the travel delays aren’t fixed, and restrictions aren’t dropped.
“It's unfortunate that the Conservatives have never taken COVID seriously,” Alghabra fired back. “It's unfortunate that the Conservatives supported these illegal blockades that blocked our borders and had a massive impact on border communities and have not apologized for it to this day.”
Jennifer Lutfallah of PHAC said during the meeting there have been 190 tickets issued for non-compliance with ArriveCAN, which she called “very limited” compared to the number of travellers. She added many of the infractions were for “repeat offenders,” people who refused either to give a paper submission, or to follow public health measures in the first place.
Now, NDP MPs are calling on the government to do more to protect passenger rights, so travellers can have their complaints heard and processed quicker, and access compensation for delays and cancellations.