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Airports, airline screening times cause for alarm

Aug. 11, 2014, Calgary - Canada’s air travel industry is calling on the federal government to commit more money to airport security and address lengthening lineups before they reach a crisis point.


August 11, 2014
By The Calgary Herald

Airports and air carriers are
sounding the alarm about security screening wait times across the
country — wait times they say are resulting in disgruntled passengers
and even flight delays.

 

“Things are wound up
like a tight rubber band. It’s strained across the country,” said
Marc-Andre O’Rourke, spokesperson for the National Airlines Council of
Canada. “We’re approaching a tipping point now. Resources are stretched
so thin, there’s not much more the system can take.”

 

Daniel-Robert
Gooch — president of the Canadian Airports Council — said the problem
is being seen primarily at larger, high-volume airports during the peak
travel hours of early morning and mid-afternoon.

 

“The
proportion of travellers waiting more than 15 minutes has gone up
significantly over the past two years and some of our major
international airports have had wait times in excess of an hour at
peak,” Gooch said. “It’s a dynamic situation that everybody involved is
actively working on to improve, but we have concerns that the wait times
will continue to get worse in the coming months — particularly during
the 2015 peak travel season.”

 

Data from the
Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the crown corporation
responsible for screening 150,000 air passengers daily in airports
across the country, confirms the trend. In 2012-13, 96 per cent of
passengers completed the security screening process in 15 minutes or
less. In 2013-14, only 92 per cent did.

 

WestJet
spokesperson Robert Palmer said the airline is occasionally forced to
delay flights because of long lines at security screening, and
acknowledged there have been “more delays this summer as compared to
last.”

 

While specific numbers for the Calgary
International Airport were not available, Airport Authority CEO Garth
Atkinson acknowledged it is a problem locally.

 

“We’ve
seen increases in lineups at pre-board screening growing over the past
several years,” Atkinson said in a recent meeting with the Calgary
Herald editorial board. “That’s a concern for us, because it’s the weak
link in a system. It’s not good for aviation across Canada.”

 

Critics
contend federal funding for airport security is not keeping pace with
the rapid rate of growth in Canadian air travel. In 2013 alone, the
Calgary International Airport saw passenger volume increase by 4.9 per
cent while the Edmonton International Airport saw 4.6 per cent growth.
CATSA predicts it will need to screen 60 million passengers nationwide
by 2017-18, up from 52 million in 2013-14.

 

“We
do have confidence in the service provided by CATSA, they’re doing a
good job … We’d just like to see them get a bit more money to do it,”
Gooch said. “At a certain point, you can only do so much with less.”

 

In
Canada, airline security is funded via the Air Travellers Security
Charge (ATSC), a fee tacked onto every passenger’s ticket that is
remitted to the federal government. It’s billed as a user-pay system,
but it doesn’t mean that CATSA has been getting more money as passenger
numbers increase.

 

Every year since 2010,
federal revenues collected from the Air Travellers Security Charge have
been increasing. But instead of increasing in turn, government funding
for CATSA has actually declined slightly. In the fiscal year 2012-2013,
the government collected nearly $636 million from passengers, but CATSA
received $550 million. The year before, the government collected $631
million in ATSC revenues while CATSA received $584 million.

 

“Our
first priority, obviously, is to screen passengers. Our mandate is a
security mandate … Still, we recognize our operational funding may not
fully accommodate an increase in passenger volumes,” said CATSA
spokesperson Mathieu Larocque.

 

There are
approximately 500 airport security screeners at the Calgary
International Airport, said union representative David Frost with
Teamsters Local 362. That’s nearly twice 2010’s figure, he said, but
it’s not an apples to apples comparison — screeners have more work to do
now because of the increase in traffic and a new requirement to screen
not just passengers, but airline and airport employees working air-side.

 

Frost
added that while security workers are trying to be as efficient as
possible, budget pressures have made their employer leery of approving
overtime shifts.

 

“A couple Sundays ago, 49
people booked off the afternoon shift — probably 30 per cent of the
staff. They didn’t replace anybody,” Frost said. “I think in the old
days, they would have been less reluctant.”

Maryse
Durette, spokesperson for Transport Canada, said the Air Travellers
Security Charge isn’t intended solely for CATSA — it also pays for other
parts of the air travel security system including Transport Canada
regulation and oversight, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers on
selected domestic and international flights.

 

Air
travel security is of utmost importance to the federal government and
ATSC rates are adjusted periodically to ensure revenues remain in line
with expenses, Durette said. However, she acknowledged that increasing
wait times are an issue.

 

“Transport Canada is
aware of the impact of increasing passenger volumes on security
screening at Canadian airports, and is working closely with CATSA to
address this issue,” she said.

 

CATSA — which
posts real-time security screening wait times on its website for public
viewing — has been working on ways to speed the lineups along, in part
by educating passengers about things they can do to ensure the screening
process runs smoothly.

 

But that’s not enough for industry representatives, who say the entire air security funding model needs to be examined.

 

“There
should be a direct and transparent correlation between ATSC revenues
and the funds allocated to CATSA in order to ensure that CATSA is being
sufficiently funded to meet passenger demand,” O’Rourke said. “We’d like
more transparency between what’s collected and where it’s going.”

Gooch
said airports want to see the federal government address the issue as
part of its wide-ranging review of the country’s transportation
legislation. Announced by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in June, the
review will be headed by former Conservative MP and cabinet minister
David Emerson and is supposed to be completed by the end of next year.

 

“When
you have traveller volumes going up and the money used to fund the
organization that screens them not going up, you see a gap — and that’s
translating into a service impact,” Gooch said. “We really need to take a
look at the structure of how aviation security is funded in this
country. Having a system that isn’t able to respond to changing traffic
volumes is not the greatest way of doing things.”