Evidence of meeting #19 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 44th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was airports.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Joseph Sparling  President, Air North
Monette Pasher  Interim President, Canadian Airports Council
Anthony Norejko  President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Business Aviation Association
Robin Guy  Senior Director, Transportation, Infrastructure and Regulatory Policy, Canadian Chamber of Commerce
Glenn Priestley  Executive Director, Northern Air Transport Association
Julian Roberts  President and Chief Executive Officer, Pascan Inc.
Yani Gagnon  Executive Vice-President, Pascan Inc.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

George Chahal Liberal Calgary Skyview, AB

Yes, I have many great questions lined up.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Unfortunately, there's no time left.

Thank you.

Next, we have Ms. Sinclair‑Desgagné.

Ms. Sinclair‑Desgagné, you have the floor for two and a half minutes.

12:40 p.m.

Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné

Thank you very much.

I'm going to try to get two questions in.

The first is for the airlines, Air North, Northern Air Transport Association and PASCAN.

It's a pretty simple question. I'd like brief responses.

A few weeks ago, Quebec announced changes to its airfare reduction program. Fares will now be capped at $500 for a return trip, and so on.

Has this already had an effect on demand? If not, do you expect it will?

12:40 p.m.

Executive Vice-President, Pascan Inc.

Yani Gagnon

Thank you for your question.

It's brand new, actually. The plan has just been announced. It includes two measures.

The first is a regional air transport assistance program that will cap the price of return tickets at no more than $500, the terms of which have yet to be finalized. Tickets will go on sale on June 1, 2022.

The other measure is an enhancement to the airfare reduction program, which is already running and reduces the price of tickets for those who live in outlying areas. The government is removing the cap on eligible claims under this program.

To answer your question, over the medium term, we're anticipating that people will travel more. The challenge for operators is not necessarily to increase the number of flights during the summer season, that is a given. It's more about establishing a consistent increase 12 months a year. Unfortunately, we don't have a crystal ball. We can't be sure at this point if these programs will have the desired effect.

12:40 p.m.

Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné

We can't predict the future, no, but it's still safe to assume that it will have a positive impact over the medium term.

My next question is for Mr. Sparling and Mr. Priestley.

Should the federal government follow Quebec's lead on reimbursement and capping costs, as a percentage of costs for interregional air travel?

12:40 p.m.

President, Air North

Joseph Sparling

I've never been a fan of subsidies, but the Quebec program is interesting. It is a way to keep regional costs affordable. Quite frankly, if we address some of the other issues such as the interline issue that was brought up by the Pascan gentleman, I think we would have a much easier time competing without subsidies.

I would like to point out on that matter that this very committee, in 2000, I believe, made a recommendation. It was recommendation number 12, report number one of the TRAN committee. Recommendation 12 says, “The government require, as a condition of approval”—this is when Air Canada was going to gobble up Canadian—“that a dominant carrier negotiate interline agreements under commercially reasonable terms and conditions with all new entrants and existing carriers in the domestic market wanting such agreements.”

This recommendation was never acted upon, and we've been advocating for just that, mandatory interline agreements between all carriers in Canada.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Thank you very much, Mr. Sparling. Unfortunately, the time is up.

Next we have Mr. Bachrach.

Mr. Bachrach, the floor is yours. You have two and a half minutes.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Taylor Bachrach NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to direct my next question to Ms. Pasher.

You mentioned the efforts by CATSA and their contractors to restaff and ensure there are enough people, and I understand they're having challenges in doing that.

Could you speak to why that is? What are the challenges that CATSA is facing in restaffing? In particular, are the wages and the work conditions in that particular sector adequate to recruit and retain skilled staff?

12:45 p.m.

Interim President, Canadian Airports Council

Monette Pasher

Thank you for the question.

I'll answer to the best of my ability, but I'm not CATSA or the government. It's a government agency, but I guess I can speak to the challenges.

CATSA is facing hiring challenges like many in the tourism and hotel industry across the country. We're hearing it in terms of getting some of those frontline workers back to work. It is a position where it takes months to train and get up to speed in terms of security. They are having to bring new people on board and train them, and they've been working on that for months.

We faced a peak in travel, and it's coming back quickly. In terms of CATSA getting through their training, they're not quite ready to deliver. They continue to work on that. They're facing challenges in some cities more than in others. I think it's where we're having more peak volumes like Pearson or Vancouver. Quebec City is also facing challenges.

Government, CATSA, and their suppliers are working on ways to address this.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Taylor Bachrach NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Thank you, Ms. Pasher.

Is it fair to say that the staffing shortages are the number one contributor to the delays we've been seeing recently? We've heard about a number of different factors that are likely contributing, but it seems to me that the staffing shortage must be a key one. Is that the number one factor?

12:45 p.m.

Interim President, Canadian Airports Council

Monette Pasher

There are a number of issues facing us in terms of efficiency and screening as well as throughput at peak times. That's why we need to create a trusted traveller program in Canada that has benefits like PreCheck in the U.S. We did face these challenges pre-COVID, but, yes, it would be my view that staffing has been our number one concern. Hopefully, moving forward, we'll be able to address that quite quickly.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Thank you very much, Mr. Bachrach.

Thank you very much, Ms. Pasher.

Next we have Ms. Lantsman.

Ms. Lantsman, the floor is yours. You have five minutes.

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Melissa Lantsman Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you.

I actually just want to go back to something on staffing shortages. Perhaps Mr. Norejko and Mr. Priestley can answer. There are countries in the world that have gotten rid of testing and mandates, and there is certainly no evidence here that public health advice is saying that we should keep them.

Can you please talk about how many people you think, in your universe, were either fired or are on leave because of these mandates and whether that contributes to the staffing shortage?

12:45 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Business Aviation Association

Anthony Norejko

What I've seen with respect to international crew members, number one, is that it's one thing to understand Canada's regulations, but it's another to say the international members who are coming into Canada face.... There is no exemption for crew members, let's say, on the vaccination front. I think it's important to suggest that while we may not be medical experts, what we are experts on is risk and understanding the probability and the severity of risk. That's the lens with which we should approach this issue and the others that are facing rural and urban airports.

We do have a number of operators within our membership who have had to be provided accommodation. What that means, basically, is that they're not flying. That is the case, but it is not a large percentage. It does speak to what was mentioned earlier—the toll booths. In fact, every 10 feet there's another road check that you have to go through, and it's very challenging. I think if we look at it from a risk-based approach there is a better path going forward. That's the extent of what we've seen.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Melissa Lantsman Conservative Thornhill, ON

Mr. Priestley, can you weigh in on that?

12:50 p.m.

Executive Director, Northern Air Transport Association

Glenn Priestley

Thank you.

Canada's north is about 40% of Canada. It's the size of Europe, and a lot of people don't realize that it has about 200 to 250 aviation assets. If I say 10,000 workers all up, would I be far off? I don't know, but a lot of them are very small operators. We're talking about your traditional float plane and businesses like that. If there's a 10% drop in workers because they are unvaxxed in a company of 10, that's a very important one person who is now working from home, and many of these are owner-operators.

The societal problems this is causing far exceed the benefit gained. I'm speaking about the employees—not the passengers—getting on board the airplane. I know we have people sitting around across Canada who we need back in our businesses.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Melissa Lantsman Conservative Thornhill, ON

That's what we have heard.

I want to move to Mr. Sparling, because I don't think I got a chance to ask him this question. It's commendable, frankly, what you've done with Air North. I understand that coming into Pearson is a recent decision. I want to know why. Was it about cost? Why wouldn't something that was homegrown and homebuilt and a success story by every metric fly into Toronto? Was it demand or cost?

12:50 p.m.

President, Air North

Joseph Sparling

We did for a number of years, pre-COVID, operate seasonal service three times a week from Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Ottawa. We observed that a significant number of our passengers were actually travelling beyond Ottawa, so the Toronto service was simply replacing two Ottawa stops a week with two Toronto stops. It's not growth or expansion on our part at all. It's simply trying to get back to what we were doing pre-COVID and trying to provide the north with seamless and easy access to major centres in the south, and conversely to provide travellers in the south with easy and seamless access to the north.

You mentioned cost. Toronto and Ottawa are now our highest fuel-cost environments, and it's just an idiosyncrasy of the system, but fuel is cheaper in Whitehorse now, if you can believe it, than it is in Ottawa and Toronto. I just wanted to make that point about cost. It's ironic.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Melissa Lantsman Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you. I don't think it's ironic. I think it's very purposeful, unfortunately.

I want to go back to the Canadian Airports Council. We have a user-pay model, where the government takes taxes, the large airports don't get much of that back and you can't access the debt market for growth.

Given that you said that the 1993 model works and that you would choose it again, would you not want to access some of the private capital to do what you want to do and actually be accountable to investors? I want to get a flavour of what the Canadian Airports Council would think about a suggestion like that.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Unfortunately, that is a very pertinent question, Ms. Lantsman, but you're out of time.

I do invite Ms. Pasher, however, once again to submit her response via brief or via email.

Last for today, we have Ms. Koutrakis.

Ms. Koutrakis, the floor is yours. You have five minutes.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

Annie Koutrakis Liberal Vimy, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My question goes again to Ms. Pasher, Mr. Guy and Mr. Norejko. Please keep your responses short because I have several questions.

I understand that part of the reason we are seeing labour shortages at CATSA is that airport authorities are now hiring former CATSA employees to fill other jobs, such as baggage handlers. Is this true?

12:55 p.m.

Interim President, Canadian Airports Council

Monette Pasher

An airport ecosystem is quite complex. Airports don't actually hire ground crew. That is done by the airlines, but there are a number of vendors throughout the airport, a number of companies and people from Nav Canada and government agencies, and a RAIC, which is your authority to get through to the secure area, is certainly a hot commodity these days. A challenge across our airport ecosystem is that people within that ecosystem who have RAICs are sometimes moving from company to company within the airport.

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Annie Koutrakis Liberal Vimy, QC

I think I'll go on to my next question because I think it's pertinent to this study.

Some have suggested that waste-water testing of the general Canadian population is efficient and that it's therefore unnecessary to continue doing randomized testing at our airports. However, if we really studied this...and there have been expert reports out there saying that off-site testing from airports does not allow us to identify variants coming in through airports or to trace back where they came from.

Keeping that in mind, if you were the federal government and you were hearing health experts giving you different advice, would you disregard that advice of public health officials if they counselled you to maintain random testing of air travellers?

May 16th, 2022 / 12:55 p.m.

Interim President, Canadian Airports Council

Monette Pasher

I'm certainly not a health expert. I would stress that we should look to review all regulations that were brought in during the pandemic to better understand what's still needed.

We're seeing countries like the U.K. move to other models. We're not seeing testing like this in many countries other than some in Asia, so why are we keeping these measures in Canada? Our airports are good partners. We will stand down and quickly stand back up testing if a new variant emerges and it's needed. I think when we look at the lessons learned from our sector, all of these border measures have really only slowed COVID down by a matter of days before it came into our communities. If we were to look at testing within the community, would we not have the same intelligence?

That's more of a question back, but I think those are some of the things we're thinking about, and we're looking at what other places are doing.

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Annie Koutrakis Liberal Vimy, QC

Mr. Norejko.