Canadian airports are calling on the federal government to further ease COVID-19-related screening requirements as they continue to deal with disruptive passenger backlogs.

Speaking with CP24 Wednesday, Interim President of the Canadian Airports Council Monette Pasher said that airports were able to accommodate the restrictions in a timely way when passenger volumes were way down because of the pandemic, but they have struggled as passenger volumes return to normal.

“In terms of international travel, really our airports can't easily facilitate these public health requirements as we've gotten back to regular travel,” she said. “We could do it when we were moving 10 per cent of (normal passenger volume) and up to 50 per cent of passengers. But from the first week of May, we've got back to 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels and it's very difficult to facilitate normal travel with these restrictions in place.”

Pasher acknowledged that the biggest issue causing the backlogs is a worker shortage and said that the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority — the Crown corporation responsible for security screenings at Canadian airports – has been working hard to streamline the recruitment and training process. 

But she said the federal government could do more to help the situation by removing random tests and public health questions for arriving passengers.

“Our biggest issue really, at Pearson, is in regards to international arrivals and the need to remove testing from our airports and some of these public health requirements,” she said.

The federal government has lifted some travel restrictions over the course of the pandemic, but has been slow to do so.

Like many jurisdictions, Canada has struggled to modulate COVID-19 health screening in order to balance protecting the country from new variants with a return to normal life. The issue has also been politicized at times, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford blaming some waves of infection on lax border protocols.

The government eliminated a pre-entry COVID test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers as of April 1.

For weeks now airports have been warning passengers to prepare for lengthy delays and to leave themselves three hours at the airport ahead of international flights. But there have also been lengthy waits on the tarmac for arriving passengers.

In a statement, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office said it understands that the situation for Canadian travellers is “frustrating” and that it is working with CATSA to ensure that staffing issues are “being dealt with as quickly as possible.”  

“We are pleased that Canadians are excited to get back to travelling and we know there is more work to do as the sector continues its recovery. We will continuing working hard with airports, CATSA, and airline so that the travel industry can bounce back,” the statement read.

Alghabra’s office said Transport Canada has worked with CATSA to develop a plan to increase the number of screening officers at checkpoints and that there are approximately 400 new screening officers in different phases of training across the country.

“Transport Canada also created the Airport Operations Recovery Committee,” the statement read.” “With participants from the largest airlines and airports, as well as CATSA, the committee is investigating causes and recommending solutions to address airport wait times.”

Pasher said she is hopeful that the problems can be resolved so that the summer travel season runs smoothly.

“We're going to work together and we're gonna find the solutions to make things better for the summer,” she said. “We've lost a lot of money over the last two years — our airports have taken on $3 billion in debt. We need to get back to business too, and we need to facilitate travel so we can recoup and recover from some of those losses. And the airlines are in the same boat, so no one is wanting to restrict travel, that's for sure.”