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Shortage of air traffic controllers causing delays, cancellations in Canadian airports

Canada's federal transport minister says he's pressuring Nav Canada, the corporation that trains and hires the country's air traffic controllers, to find solutions to staffing woes affecting passenger flights.

Nav Canada says it's working to train new staff to fill gaps left by pandemic layoffs

A plane flies over an air traffic control tower

Canada's federal transport minister says he's pressuring the corporation that oversees the country's air traffic controllers to find solutions to staffing woes affecting passenger flights.

"I am having regular conversations with the CEO of Nav Canada, including one this week to keep asking him for an update on the status of their staffing operations" said Omar Alghabra.

Nav Canada, the corporation that oversees Canada's air traffic controllers, admits some summer flight delays have been caused by personnel shortages.

"We do certainly acknowledge the fact that we have had some staffing-related challenges," said Marie-Pier Berman, Nav Canada's vice-president and chief of operations.

The union representing air traffic controllers in British Columbia has been sounding the alarm on staffing since 2021.

Berman said Nav Canada is training more than 400 new employees now and that the organization hopes to increase that number.

WATCH | Flying post COVID has been a bumpy ride:

Air traffic controller shortage driving this summer's flight delays, experts say

8 hours ago

Duration 2:03

After last summer's airline worker shortage caused huge headaches for travellers, this summer's delays are being caused by Nav Canada's lack of air traffic controllers, according to industry insiders.

Unlike in the United States, there is no publicly available data that breaks down why or how many flights are delayed, but the president of the Canadian Airports Council says the number of delays caused by a lack of air traffic controllers has been noteworthy.

"Staffing shortages have impacted our air carrier flight schedules and airspace management from time to time and in major regions of the country," said Monette Pasher. "We have seen this most acutely in the B.C. mainland airspace."

Post-pandemic air travel in Canada has been marked by challenges, both because of a surge in demand, and because of labour shortages throughout the industry, many of which are at least partially attributable to pandemic layoffs.

"This summer we've seen a variety of run-of-the-mill delays that travellers are frankly very used to … thunderstorms, weather delays, issues related to congestion," said Duncan Dee, an aviation consultant and the former COO of Air Canada.

"What makes this summer particularly different with regard to delays is the fact that we've seen a tremendous number of delays related to shortages of air traffic controllers."

Dee says he's tracked an increase in this type of delay dating back to last summer, and notes they've become more frequent since March.

Shortage follows pandemic layoffs

In 2020, Nav Canada announced it was cutting more than 720 jobs, representing about 14 per cent of its workforce. It also terminated its training program during the pandemic.

P.E.I. native Matthew Gillis, a mechanical engineer, had moved to two different cities for on-the-job air traffic controller training, then felt left in the lurch when that training was cancelled due to COVID-19.

"I'd invested years into this pursuit," he said. "It certainly gutted me."

Gillis has since found another job and moved to New Brunswick, and though Nav Canada asked him if he would restart his training after the pandemic, he declined, saying he had neither the "energy nor the appetite."

Still, he said he takes no pleasure in seeing air traffic controller shortages causing delays.

"To know that Nav Canada management made this decision without planning for how it would impact the future of the organization to meet their service requirements is concerning," he said.

Nav Canada defends layoffs

"There were very difficult decisions that had to be made during the pandemic," said Berman. "The reality is, we barely had any planes that were in the sky at that time."

She said cancelling the training program was a matter of safety, as there were strict physical distancing rules in place at the time.

Canada is not the only country dealing with a shortage of air traffic controllers. Similar issues have been reported in the United States.

Berman said Nav Canada is currently focused on recruiting and training the largest number of people possible to fix the labour shortage and keep operations running smoothly.

New bill could end 'finger pointing'

In June, Alghabra introduced a new proposed law, Bill C-52, that he said will increase accountability when flights are delayed.

"It will really deal with this issue of finger pointing because the sector is highly interconnected," the transport minister said.

"Each organization should be responsible for their own operation and held accountable."

If passed, the law would require airports to publish their performance metrics publicly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate McKenna is a senior reporter with CBC News. She is based in the parliamentary bureau. kate.mckenna@cbc.ca.

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