Systems thinking and Canadian airport delays
Why can't the government do its job properly?
There have been significant delays at Canadian airports starting May 2022. From CBC:
Nearly half a million passengers were held up after arriving aboard international flights at Toronto's Pearson airport last month.
Some 490,810 travellers, or about half of all arrivals from abroad, faced delays as they were held inside their planes on the tarmac or faced staggered off-loading to ease pressure on overflowing customs areas, according to figures provided by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA.)
In total, some 2,700 flights arriving from outside the country were delayed at Pearson last month, versus four planes — and a few hundred passengers — in May 2019.
Scenes of endless security and customs queues at large Canadian airports — and Pearson in particular — have played out all spring, with peak travel season still weeks away.
I wanted to take a look at what is behind the delays, my own recent experience at Pearson and maybe some lessons we can learn from this.
Some argue that we shouldn’t really care about this issue at all:
Besides the usual federal/provincial mandate problems (the federal government doesn’t handle health care), I think its important to care that our government’s business at usual is falling apart. I’ve written before about why the government can’t do stuff anymore. We should care about this because we have entrusted our governments to perform certain tasks, such as handle security in airports. If our government can’t execute on something like managing our airports, why should we trust them to handle other more important issues? I thought that this was a useful case study.
My experience at Pearson in May
Anecdotes are not data, but my own experience travelling in May matched up with news reports. I was in London, UK for work in the middle of May 2022. Because international flights are still not flying out of Ottawa, I had connected through Montreal on the way there and Toronto on the way home. The flights between Montreal/Toronto and Ottawa were both under an hour, so it seemed pretty silly to deal with air travel, but I don’t think there was a better alternative.
When we landed in Toronto on the way back, they announced that the terminal was full and that only those with connecting flights were allowed to actually leave the plane. Luckily that included me. I exited the plane at about 8:00 and was stressing because I knew I needed to make it through customs and run across the terminal in time to make my 8:40 flight to Ottawa. I had already heard reports of customs being a nightmare so I was terrified of missing my flight.
Customs was as bad as expected, except that the timing worked in my favour. The few of us who left the flight (plus another flight that got there at the same time) ended up funneled into a tiny room full of facial recognition machines, then a line up to talk to one of two (!) border agents. It ended up quicker than I thought
Why talk to both a machine and a border agent? Not sure, probably government risk-aversion. As a comparison, entering the UK as a Canadian involved a facial recognition machine and no agents, so it’s easier for a Canadian to enter the UK than it is to enter Canada, which seems ridiculous.
I got through customs by 20:20, giving me 20 minutes to get to my gate. Because the signs throughout the terminal said the flight was on time, I ran across the terminal and made it there by 20:30. I got there and no one had boarded yet, so I got there with plenty of time. It ended up leaving 1.5 hours late for my 45 minute flight.
I landed in Ottawa during a major storm so there were delays on that side as well. End to end, I could have driven from Toronto to my house quicker, which is crazy since it is at least four hours by car.
What caused the problems at Pearson?
I’ve read a number of culprits for these delays:
“out of practice” travellers unfamiliar with general airport procedures
border agent shortages
continued covid restrictions - requirements to fill out ArriveCAN and verify information
continued covid testing
I’ve seen the facial recognition machines themselves blamed, because the customs hall is too small for them all.
I think the problem is all the above, and probably more factors. Airports are complex systems. They have many moving parts and require many people to do many different jobs at many different times. Delays, like traffic delays, end up causing effects throughout the system.
Twitter is full of people blaming one or some of these measures. Our loyal opposition the Conservative Party of Canada of course blames continued vaccine mandates and COVID testing solely, which explains part of the government response in the last few days. Unfortunately, systems thinking doesn’t lend itself to blame, because there are many problems. The Conservative Party can’t blame Trudeau directly for this if they consider the number of moving parts.
This also isn’t just happening at Pearson, it’s happening in Europe as well:
Shawn Micallef @shawnmicallefFlight is delayed at Frankfurt due to shortage of ground staff- Munich & FRA are the fastest airports I’ve been to in the past - the troubles at YYZ are not unique.
The fact that its being seen elsewhere too is a sign that it is not just covid restrictions causing the problems.
What are we doing about it?
The government’s first response to these wait times was that travellers were “out of practice”, which frankly is just ridiculous. The minister, Omar Alghabra, should have known better than to give such an idiotic response. On May 31, the government extended border restrictions for a month, still on the “not a big deal” train. On June 10, the government 'temporarily' suspended random COVID testing (something pretty much every other peer country has already permanently done away with.
What changed in the ten days between extending and ending restrictions? The science hasn’t. On June 10 (the same day!), Theresa Tam discussed how important those airport restrictions are:
The random testing is not to detect every case. It is there to provide an early-warning system for variants of concern,” Tam said on Friday at a Public Health Agency of Canada press conference.
If an early-warning system is so important, why drop restrictions the same day she said that? I’m going to explore this further in the future, but the Liberal government is most willing to solve problems that are politically expedient. Airports are making the news so airports are the problem that need to be solved. The government handles files of complexity by not taking them seriously, which is why government initiatives will often fail. How do we know that government doesn’t take things seriously?
The tweet in question is about Britain, but I think it’s pretty evergreen for Canada as well.
Incentives are aligned against long-term planning towards short-term fire fighting to get things out of the news cycle. It’s pretty classic Government of Canada to wait about a month before doing anything about a problem. Their standard operating procedures are to first ignore the problem, then say that it is not that big of a problem, then finally do something half-assed about it.
Was COVID testing in airports effective? It’s hard to say, but it has cost a tremendous amount of money. Up to February 2022, the bill was $1.2 billion. Given that covid is everywhere in Canada, I’d hazard a guess that we’re not really getting our moneys worth when it comes to this. I would like to see a cost/benefit analysis, but considering the fact that the government was willing to just drop it when it became inconvenient implies that it was not as important as they originally were making it out to be.
The government does not take issues seriously until it becomes political, and then takes the shortest path towards getting it out of the news cycle. It is also apparently unable to think about systems holistically, or does not have incentives aligned into solving things properly.
What should they actually be doing? Dropping ineffective restrictions seems like an easy win (literally just stopping doing something bad). Extending them on May 31 was an unforced error. I’d write about prioritizing systems thinking and looking past the 24 hour news cycle but I don’t believe the government has it in them.
There’s a bigger story I think about government risk aversion and efficiency: why talk to an agent and to a machine in the customs hall? Seems like a win to prioritize Canadians reentering the country to speed things up but they probably don’t want news stories about weakening border security.
Edit (June 12): And as a quick addendum, this was posted on Twitter today which helps prove my point that this is more complicated than the government is implying: