TRAVEL

Clearing the air

A busy airport gets a temporary reprieve

BARBARA WICKENS December 26 1988
TRAVEL

Clearing the air

A busy airport gets a temporary reprieve

BARBARA WICKENS December 26 1988

Clearing the air

TRAVEL

A busy airport gets a temporary reprieve

For months, the pressures caused by a shortage of air-traffic controllers and the need for another runway had been building at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport. At one point earlier this month, 40 aircraft queued on the runways—some for more than three hours— waiting to be cleared for takeoff. One week later, airline officials cancelled 61 flights, leaving passengers scrambling to get aboard other flights. With service at the airport rapidly deteriorating—and the crush of holiday travel looming—Ottawa announced a set of emergency measures on Dec. 9 that imposed a limit of 70 flights an hour in or out of Pearson until mid-January—45 flights an hour fewer than the airlines were requesting at peak periods. The new measures reduced delays to about 20 minutes. Still, airline and travel officials said that more than temporary measures were needed to deal with the problems. Said Gordon Sinclair, Ottawa-based president of the Air

Transport Association of Canada, which represents all commercial aviation in Canada: “The problem is not going to go away in a month’s time.”

Because Pearson is Canada’s largest and busiest airport, its troubles quickly caused problems elsewhere. When air traffic at Pearson began backing up earlier this month, flights originating from within 302 miles—mainly from airports at Ottawa and Montreal—had to be postponed or cancelled. As a result, travellers missed connecting flights right across Canada. At the same time, Vancouver International Airport had its own problems. Because of shortages of air-traffic controllers and runway space, delays were a problem there as well.

For his part, federal Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard scheduled a round of meetings early next year to discuss long-term solutions to the problems at Toronto’s airport. One of Pearson’s difficulties is that its three runways can no longer handle the volume of air

traffic through Toronto—and a third terminal, currently under construction and scheduled for use in 1990, may not solve the problem.

A nationwide shortage of air controllers may be even more difficult to solve. According to Jack Butt, president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, there are now 1,525 controllers working in Canada—200 fewer than are needed. He added that Toronto needs about 50 more controllers, while there are also shortages in Gander, Nfld., Moncton, N.B., Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.

The critical shortage of air controllers stems from decisions made in 1983, when a Transport Canada projection forecast that air traffic in Canada would grow by three to four per cent annually through the remainder of the 1980s. Calculating that Canada had enough air controllers to handle that increase, Transport Canada froze the hiring of new controllers. As it turned out, air traffic during the next five years increased by more than 50 per cent. Because it takes two years to train a controller, the shortfall could not quickly be replaced. René Mercier, chief of media relations for Transport Canada, said that the air-traffic control division at the Transport Canada Training Institute in Cornwall, Ont., which reopened last August, has begun an accelerated recruitment and training program so that by 1992 as many as 110 controllers will graduate each year.

Searching for a quick remedy, Transport Canada has hired 45 controllers since October from the United States, including some air controllers who were fired by President Ronald

Reagan’s administration after an 11-week strike paralysed U.S. air travel in 1981. The American controllers, who are being hired on four-year contracts, are all scheduled to be working by April after special retraining sessions to familiarize them with Canadian conditions.

Still, Butt said that such measures will not solve the underlying problems. Said Butt: “On Jan. 1,1988, there were 281 controllers who were age 50 and older. We will be worse off by 1990 than we are today because of attrition alone, not including increases in air traffic.” Butt also denied that air controllers helped to create the lengthy delays at Pearson to back up contract negotiations with the federal government’s Treasury Board that began on Dec. 5. Said Butt:

“We have been on record since 1984 that such problems would result from the hiring freeze. This is not a new issue for us.”

Besides the irritation and inconvenience caused by late or cancelled flights, there are sound economic reasons for ensuring that Canada’s airports are fully operational. William

Duron, president of the Metro Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, said that when members of the executive board of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Professional Convention Management Association visited Toronto

in August, they were impressed by the city. But Duron said that because of the risks of delays at Pearson, the association—whose members book $500 million in meetings each year—decided to hold its 1993 convention in Dallas. In Vancouver, where the single runway

is already operating at maximum capacity, the loss of potential business is even more serious. A 1986 Transport Canada study showed that up to 30 per cent of Canadian passengers travelling to and from Pacific Rim destinations, and companies responsible for 85 per cent of Canadianbound air cargo, decided to use U.S. airports rather than Vancouver.

Meanwhile, even more problems loomed for Canada’s troubled airports. The 13,000 members of the Union of Canadian Transport Employees, which represents airport ground personnel and M support staff, last month voted 73-per-cent in favor of a strike to back up contract negotiations—for a standard 2 national rate of pay—which I have been stalled for the last 5 14 months. Toronto union g members said that they I would stage a series of rotating picket lines during the Christmas travel season, while union officials said that a full-scale strike could come in January. Clearly, there are still rough skies ahead for Canada’s travellers.

BARBARA WICKENS with correspondents’ reports