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LILLEY: Pearson so bad that backups a National Fire Code violation

LILLEY: Pearson so bad that backups a National Fire Code violation

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LILLEY: Pearson so bad that backups a National Fire Code violation

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How bad are the backups in the customs halls at Pearson? So bad that the fire chief for Canada’s busiest airport has warned airlines that if they let passengers off before they’re told to, they will be in violation of the National Fire Code.

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Fire Chief Todd Aitken issued the directive on June 23, and it came into effect on July 1. A copy of the directive shared with the Toronto Sun blames the problems with clearing passengers through Pearson on federal government requirements.

“Toronto Pearson International Airport (Toronto Pearson) is experiencing significant disruptions to its operations which is attributable, in part, to a reduction in throughput capacity in processing arriving international passengers, as a result of government-mandated processes and agency staffing,” Aitken wrote.

As a result, all international flights arriving in Toronto must now hold passengers on the plane until they are given specific instructions that they can be released.

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“Incidents where an airline fails to comply with such an instruction and self-releases its passengers into the passenger terminal can lead to the CBSA Primary Inspection Line being overwhelmed with passengers, with queues backing up onto the Arrivals Transfer level. The ensuing congestion creates safety risks, disrupts other operations in the terminal and on the ramp and worsens the passenger experience,” states the directive.

Aitken cited Sec. 2.1.2.2 of the National Fire Code which states, “Activities that create a hazard and that are not allowed for in the original design shall not be carried out in a building.”

All of this to say, the customs halls at Pearson are so backed up that they’ve been violating the fire code and have become a safety hazard. In citing “government-mandated processes and agency staffing,” Aitken is showing, once again, that the Trudeau government isn’t telling the truth.

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“On our end, we have done everything we can,” Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra said last week.

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There are two areas of federal responsibility that are contributing to the problems at airports, and they both lead to other delays and problems for airlines and passengers. The feds are responsible for processing international passengers through customs and for security screening of passengers and baggage for passengers leaving Canadian airports like Pearson.

Both are a mess and have been for months, dating back to late March, and while it’s true there are problems elsewhere, none have been as persistent or lasted as long as the problems at Pearson. Even other Canadian airports aren’t as bad, though things are getting worse in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary.

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The feds want you to believe that they have no role in this, it’s just the airlines and their scheduling problems, or they claim it’s a staffing issue.

Let’s be clear, as I have been from the beginning, the airlines have things they are responsible for, including the disaster that has become baggage handling, but screening and customs are huge problems that are solely the responsibility of the federal government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers need to stop blaming slow passengers or bad airlines for things only they can fix.

As Aitkens noted, there are staffing issues at Pearson for the Canada Border Services Agency, which is in charge of the customs agents. The union representing those workers has been sounding the alarm on staffing issues for months; they’ve also been calling out the problems created by the ArriveCan app.

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“Every Border Officer working on the frontline will tell you that the implementation of the ArriveCan application has seen processing times skyrocket,” union president Mark Weber told a Commons committee two weeks ago. “At airports, this means travellers piling up in and outside the customs area.”

The government ignored him and calls from airports, airlines, border city mayors and First Nations communities — in addition to the union — and extended the mandatory use of the ArriveCan app until Sept. 30 as federal officials consider making it permanent. At airports, this app is blamed for the average processing time for passengers moving up from 30 seconds to 4 minutes.

Multiply that over hundreds and hundreds of passengers per hour entering the country and suddenly the customs hall is backed up, planes are made to wait at the gate with passengers on board or sit on the tarmac because the gates are full.

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That leads to missed connections, which leads to extra passengers at the airport trying to get new flights. It leads to other flights being delayed, it leads to baggage chaos, it leads to more problems — all because the customs function at Pearson isn’t working.

On the entry into the airport, it’s not much better.

On Sunday morning, just after 6 a.m., the lineup for security screening at Terminal 1 stretched all the way through the Air Canada check-in area all the way to the door. Airports and airlines are still telling passengers to arrive at least two hours before a domestic flight to ensure they can have people processed in time.

Other airports around the world, like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, are experiencing a strike and airlines and airports across Europe are seeing either full or partial work stoppages. This is what the Trudeau government is pointing to when it says other countries are experiencing the same kind of delays.

While Canadian airlines are among the most delayed as a percentage of their flights – Air Canada was the most delayed Saturday, WestJet was third, Swoop was fourth and Jazz was 10th – not a single American airline or airport is experiencing the level of problems as our airlines and airports.

The Trudeau government needs to stop trying to blame others and fix its own mess. Government officials can then call on airlines or airports to fix their problems.

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