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Matt Gurney: I flew out of Pearson and back for no particular reason. Here's what I saw
“If you get stuck in some travel hell,” Jen said, “it will all be worth it, because it will make great journalism … and it will amuse people to see you suffer."
In the middle of last week, a video of a former NHLer went viral. In it, he bemoaned the horrific travel experience he had just “enjoyed” at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The social media gripe aligned with recent news reports and even anecdotal stories I’d been hearing about significant disruptions at Pearson. Local politicians were starting to get angry about it. The Conservatives were using it as a blunt instrument with which to whack the Liberals over the heads.
And your intrepid team here at The Line was thinking they should look into it … because we hadn’t experienced the chaos.
I went through Pearson as an international arrival in late March, returning from the southern United States with my wife and children. It was a completely painless experience. Optimal, frankly. Meanwhile, my fellow Line editor Jen Gerson has been back and forth a few times in recent months from her home in Calgary to destinations in eastern Canada, including Pearson, and has likewise had pain-free travel experiences.
So what gives?
This is a familiar frustration. It’s getting harder to actually sort out the plain truth of what is happening because virtually every person talking about it is coming in with some prepackaged notion or agenda. I suggested to Jen that I simply get in my car and drive to Pearson and eyeball what little of the airport I would be allowed to access and try to corner some passengers on the way out for interviews. “No, no,” she said. “The only way you’re going to actually be able to write about what the hell is going on for air travellers at Pearson is if you fly in and out of Pearson.”
“And if you get stuck in some travel hell,” she added, “it will all be worth it, because it will make great journalism … and it will amuse people to see you suffer.”
And I went, huh. She’s right. On every count. It was worth doing no matter what. It would be really worth doing if it turned into a debacle. And yes. People probably would enjoy it more the more aggravation I had to put up with. Because you’re kind of twisted that way, aren’t you, dear reader?
So I flew in and out of Toronto Pearson, so you don’t have to (unless you do). Really: the entire trip was entirely for the purpose of subjecting myself to whatever the air travel gods desired to throw at me. If Jen hadn’t suggested it, I’d have just stayed at home to watch the new episode of For All Mankind or something. (In fairness, I watched it anyway. It was okay, I guess.)
I had no particular agenda going into this trip, or any idea what to expect. But this was, as the old journalism saying goes, my chance to look out the frickin’ window and see if it was raining.
So how’d it go?
Not great. But not terrible, either.
Before we get into the details of the experience, let’s set out the parameters. We’re still a pretty small operation here at The Line, so we couldn’t spend a fortune on this (read to the bottom, folks — we have an ask to make of you). Still, this seemed like a story worth covering, and we wanted to move fast and strike while the iron was hot, as it were. I had family obligations I couldn’t just instantly ditch. I could fly into the U.S. on a Thursday evening, spend Friday there, and then fly back to Toronto on Saturday morning. We looked at basically every U.S. destination in reasonable reach — the Eastern time zone, effectively, plus Chicago. Due to the sheer number of daily direct flights and huge volume of hotel rooms, New York City was the cheapest option, beating out second-cheapest Boston by a full $80. New York also offered me the very happy coincidence of some close friends of mine being in town at the same time I’d be, giving us a chance to meet up and have dinner.
I did wonder briefly about trying to figure out what would be the worst moment to fly, in terms of deliberately courting huge crowds and major delays. The worse this experience was, after all — the more I suffered — the better the story would be. That felt like cheating, though. So I simply figured out the earliest time I could dump the kids on my ever-patient wife, and then booked the hotel and flights as affordably as possible in that window. The overall schedule was basically what anyone might experience using Pearson for a one-day business trip on short notice, or a quick recreational jaunt to the Big Apple.
I tried to do everything that a savvy, efficient traveller would know to do. I made sure all my travel documents were in order. I got myself the pre-departure COVID-19 test, which the U.S., of course, discontinued the day after I flew home. (You owe me $40, Mr. Biden.) I travelled with carry-on luggage only and checked in online before I arrived. For the return trip, I properly filled out the ArriveCAN app before leaving New York.
I left my house about 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. It took me about an hour to work my way through Toronto traffic to Pearson. I parked and headed inside. My first encounter with anyone in an official capacity at the airport was a very grumpy woman who was snapping at everybody to put their masks on as they walked inside. (Service with a smile, even if the smile is hidden behind a piece of paper or cloth, was evidently not her mantra.) Even though I’d checked in online, I went by the Air Canada counters just to see how things were going there. There was a moderate crowd, and what looked like three or four Air Canada staff getting them checked in. The line wasn’t moving quickly, but I stood around long enough to see for myself that people were moving through at a fairly steady clip. I’ve seen faster, but this wasn’t a disaster like the ones we’ve all been reading about.
I moved on to security. Security has been one of the cited problems for people flying out of Pearson. Again, I have nothing to report but a smooth experience. I dutifully surrendered my belt and shoes for Freedom Scanning, let them X-ray my e-reader, for liberty, and marched through the security scanner, holding up my pants, like I owned the place. The entire security experience took maybe only 10 minutes. I’ve done better. I’ve definitely done worse.
With belt and shoes back on, I grabbed my bag and moved into the pre-clearance area operated by U.S. Customs. This was where I encountered my first problem. There were very, very few U.S. border staff on duty (thanks, Trudeau). Those of you who know the Pearson pre-clearance area will understand when I say that it is spread it out in a long, straight line that makes it impossible to really get a full sense of what’s going on. I did my damnedest to count how many kiosks were open, and could only count three. (A fourth opened up near to me as I stood in line.)
I was near the back of a moderate-sized group. I would estimate maybe a hundred. By Pearson standards, that’s not a particularly large crowd. But that line moved very, very slowly. I had arrived with plenty of time to spare, so wasn’t worried. If I had cut it much closer, though, I would definitely have been starting to get antsy. I took me about an hour to get up to a kiosk. The actual security screening was a delight; my border guard was pleasant and even funny. I have no complaints about the person. I just wish there had been more of them.
And speaking of which, let’s talk about those airport staff. As I mentioned, my first contact with them was strolling out of the parking garage into Terminal 1, where the grumpy young woman was snapping, “Masks! Masks!” like every mouth she saw was a personal affront to her dignity. The airport staff didn’t really get much of a chance to redeem themselves, because I didn’t see many after that. While I was waiting to get through U.S. Customs, two airport staff did show up to meticulously rearrange all of the rope barriers that kept us in neat lines. They were very diligent and studious about this, and I really have no idea what the hell they were doing, because by the time it was over the lines looked exactly as they had before. So go figure. But that was basically it in terms of airport staff.
And this was a problem. After we went through security, a travelling young couple was confused. The woman spoke a little bit of English. The man didn’t seem to speak any. They weren’t sure where they were supposed to go. There was not a single airport staffer to help them. I tried. The language barrier proved a problem. Several other travellers joined me in trying to offer whatever assistance they could, and more than one of them joined me in wondering where the hell any airport staff were. But there was simply none to be found.
A few minutes later, after the frustrated couple simply planted themselves into the U.S. Customs line, an elderly gentleman who was traveling with what I assume was his wife began to experience what seemed to be a very mild medical problem. This was not an emergency. From what I could tell, he simply needed to sit down because he had been standing and walking for too long. Normally at a large airport you see staffers zipping around with either golf-cart-style assistance vehicles or pushing wheelchairs for those who need them. Not this time. There was nowhere for him to sit or rest, and not a single staffer in sight. A younger couple, who did not appear to be travelling with the older couple, provided some assistance by letting the man sit for a few minutes on their suitcase.
The whole thing was resolved quickly and happily. After a rest he moved off again. But it made the lack of any airport personnel all the more evident. Where were these guys?
I wouldn’t get my answer for another two days.
Once I was through U.S. Customs, it was just a short walk over to my gate. All the little stores and shops in the terminal seemed open as per usual. I bought a new mask as the strap on the one I was wearing broke, and the voice of that unpleasant lady at the parking garage snapping “Mask! Mask!” was ringing in my head. My new mask affixed, I headed to one of the restaurant kiosks in the terminal, one where customers placed their own orders and paid directly at their seats using iPads. They were experiencing some kind of connection issue with the iPads. You could place an order but not pay for it. The restaurant staff were able to quickly adapt and cheerfully zipped around with a portable payment machine, and it occurred to me that the restaurant seemed completely normally staffed, with friendly employees there to help you out immediately. If you were an older person in some medical discomfort or a person with limited English needing some help navigating, you were out of luck.
Read what you want into what that says about our priorities.
My flight out of Toronto was delayed several times, apparently because the arriving plane was late and then slow to offload (and we were not the only delayed flight, see above). This was annoying, but not unexpected, and only set us back about an hour. The flight from Toronto to New York was smooth, up until the landing, which was a much harder thump than normal. It was no harm done but it certainly got the blood flowing. What really got the blood flowing was when we were told that there was no gate available and we would have to sit on the tarmac at LaGuardia (thanks again, Trudeau). That was about 45 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back, across the aisle from an increasingly cranky baby and her parents, who were sweating bullets with every shriek and cry. (The baby’s, not mine.) Even after we were finally able to get to a gate, the bridge that connects the terminal to the plane’s forward exit malfunctioned. That took another 15 minutes or so to sort out. It was a full hour (well, 59 minutes, by my count) from our jarring landing until I actually set foot off the airplane.
As noted, I was traveling with carry-on only. But I did stop at the baggage claim area, just to time it. I didn’t keep a stopwatch to it or anything, but I just wanted to see if it went smoothly. It did. Bags began arriving in what felt like a reasonable time. Call it 20 minutes? Once I saw people I recognized from my flight grabbing their bags, including the parents of the cranky baby, who was now in a perfectly cheerful mood, of course, I sauntered off to the taxi area, where the lineup was huge, but moved quickly. That was probably another 20 minutes. And then about a half-hour drive to my hotel in Times Square. I arrived just before 1 a.m., Saturday morning.
All in, the flight out was fine, I guess, but I could easily see where problems would be coming from. The reports of chaos at the airport have been clear that it is not consistent. So I knew full well that I could easily have a really good experience, or a really terrible one. Getting from Toronto to New York was neither. It was an imperfect experience, but one that got me there about nine hours, total, from when I left my house to when I stepped into the lobby of the hotel.
And that nine-hour figure, my colleague Gerson noted the next day when I called her with an update, was an interesting one. Because that’s actually about as long as it would take to have driven from Toronto to New York City.
More on that later.
I’ll skip over how I actually spent the Friday in New York, except to say that it is always nice to be in New York City. The weather was lovely, and with the exception of COVID-19 testing vans every few blocks, the pandemic seems largely forgotten there. On Saturday morning, I woke up, packed and cabbed back to LaGuardia without incident. But this time, I decided to directly test the notion of whether driving back would have been faster. From the lobby of my hotel, I started a stopwatch, then headed out the door. I also checked my navigation app to see how long it would’ve taken me to drive from the hotel (where I could have parked at a lot right across the street) to my driveway in Toronto. It estimated eight hours and one minute. I factored in an extra hour to account for fuel stops and bathroom breaks. And I made a note of checking later on that day what the delays were at the bridges from western New York into Ontario. (When I did, the delays were effectively nil, but I decided to round up to an even 30 minutes, to build in a buffer). So, it was a race — could I get back to my home in Toronto by flying in less than the 9.5 hours I could have done it by car?
Alas, I could not.
The taxi ride from Times Square to LaGuardia was uneventful. Again, I checked in online, had done the ArriveCAN app declarations on my phone that morning and was only travelling with carry-on luggage. I did stop at the Air Canada counters and observed in New York much what I had in Toronto. There was a moderate crowd handled by a small number of employees, but overall, the pace was reasonable. Security at LaGuardia was slower than it had been in Toronto, but not by much. Both experiences with security were fine.
That’s when the fun began. I was just settling in at a table in the terminal to enjoy a bagel for breakfast when I got my first notification of a delay on my return flight. It was estimated to be an hour. I shrugged and ate the bagel. Not long after I finished it, the flight was pushed back another 30 minutes. I found a comfortable place in the terminal to sit down and figured I’d catch up on my reading. As I was doing that, the flight was pushed back another hour. And then another 30 minutes. I’d been set to fly out at 11:30. We were now hoping to lift off at 2:30.
I spoke with Jen again. I told her that if we actually lifted off exactly at 2:30, if everything was perfectly smooth on the flight home, and if I absolutely breezed through Pearson, it was still possible for me to beat the 9.5-hour arrival target. That would be perfect, since my son had a hockey game at 5:30 — 9.5 hours on the nose from when I left the hotel — and I’ve never missed one of his games. But everything would have to go exactly right.
It didn’t. We ended up leaving closer to 3 o’clock than 2:30. The flight was normal. We landed in Toronto at around 4 p.m, instead of the originally planned 1:00. (Thanks for that, too, Trudeau.)
That’s when we got some bad news.
The pilot came on the intercom and said that due to congestion in the terminal, only disabled passengers or those needing to make connecting flights would be allowed to offload. The rest of us were going to stay on the plane until cleared by customs to disembark. An awfully loud collective groan rippled through the aircraft. It seemed to me that people were well aware of the reports of dysfunction in Toronto, and had been expecting bad news just like this.
It felt like it took us a little longer than normal to actually reach the gate, but not too bad — not enough to be even sure it was a problem. After we had parked, the captain came back on and delivered some good news: customs had decided to let us in after all. The passengers cheered and applauded. It struck me then that my fellow passengers were more relieved to learn they would not be stranded at the gate then they were to not have died horribly in a fireball of combusting jet fuel and razor-sharp shrapnel.
It was an interesting time to arrive in Toronto. The government had just announced the day before that it was temporarily suspending random COVID screening of international arrivals, which had been cited by industry stakeholders as a contributing cause to the delays at Pearson. I was arriving on the first day that suspension was in effect. A few fellow passengers were rushed off the plane, as the previous delays in New York had put them in danger of missing a connecting flight. The rest of us filed off a few minutes later. We seem to have been deposited at a gate awfully far from where we needed to be, and every escalator along our route was out of service. This was a minor irritant for most of us, but a challenge for an elderly passenger, and, once again, there were no staff from Pearson to provide any help.
When I got to the Canadian customs area, I understood why they had chosen to hold us, even if only briefly. The room was not overflowing, but the passengers from my plane, once added to those already waiting, basically filled it back out into the corridor. I’ve experienced one or two customs meltdowns at Pearson before, and this had the looks of one. The area was loud with chatter, some of those damned automated kiosks you have to use now weren’t working properly, and the room was packed with about as many people as it could hold.
Oh, crap, I thought to myself. Here we go.
But honestly, it was fine. There were airport staff in this room, lots of them. I’m now wondering if the reason almost everywhere else in the airport was devoid of staff is because everyone available had been sent to the customs area. There were, to be blunt, more than were needed, which resulted in everyone present being told to, “Please keep moving,” about 47 times more than was really necessary. But we did keep moving, quickly enough. The automated kiosk actually read my passport correctly, for a change, and I took the printed receipt and moved into a shorter line, and beheld the site of more Canadians Border Services Agency officers than I have ever seen gathered in any one place before in my life.
Seriously. There was an army of them there. It looked to me like they had even set up some extra portable stations to handle arriving passengers.
The line from the kiosks moved swiftly, more so than I’d expected, and when I finally made it up to a guard myself, I discovered the reason for the speed. They were crunching people through as fast as I have ever seen them move. A pleasant young woman took my passport, scanned it, took the printout I’d taken from the kiosk, scanned that, and told me I was good to go. I had to pass through two more checkpoints of border guards, both of whom wanted to see my printout to confirm it had been validated, but they just glanced at my papers and waved me on (the last one took the form and tossed it into a bin, but I didn’t break stride).
And then I was into the baggage claim area. It took only about 15 minutes to get from my aircraft through customs.
Once more, though I had no baggage of my own to claim, I decided to stick around and see how the process went. There was a bit of chaos in the claims area, as one of the kiosks broke down. There were a few airport staffers around, and on the PA system, a series of harried announcements directed waiting passengers to new kiosk locations. (Hope all those people hurriedly rushing across the area enjoyed their time in Rome!) My flight was not affected by whatever the problems were. The wait for our bags seemed maybe a bit longer than normal, but if so, only just. The bags began coming out, and I threw my backpack over my shoulders and walked out.
Once I was in the lobby, walking to the parking lot, I checked my timer. I had estimated that it would have taken me 9.5 hours to get from my hotel to my house if I’d driven. And as I walked through the lobby at Pearson towards the parking garage, my timer told me that it had been nine hours and 36 minutes since I’d left. So yes. It would have been faster to drive.
As said above, I didn’t do this because I had any particular narrative to sell. I did it because I’m increasingly frustrated by how hard it is to actually find out what’s really going on, because all I can read, see and hear are people trying to tell me that it’s someone’s fault, or at least that it isn’t theirs, or that matters are just as bad elsewhere. I’m not sure anyone reading this will find much support to any of the narratives that are floating around out there. I definitely saw problems. The lack of airport staff at Pearson was certainly an issue for some passengers. The significant delay in my return flight was a problem for anyone who needed to sprint to make their connecting flight. Spending an hour sitting on the tarmac at LaGuardia is an experience I would just as soon never repeat. The Canadian customs officers were obviously flat-out rushing to get people through, and I don’t think that’s sustainable for long.
But I have to be honest: there was simply was no enormous meltdown anywhere for me to see and report to you. My trips to LaGuardia and back were, all in, frustrating and annoying at times but well within the normal range of air-travel experiences I’ve had. Worse than many, but better than some.
I cannot tell you if I got lucky, or if suspending the arrival tests made a big difference. I can tell you that there are not enough staff at Pearson International Airport to assist travellers, but if you’re hungry or thirsty, you’ll find a waiter to take your order. I can tell you that if I had arrived at U.S. Customs pre-clearance at a slightly busier time, that easily could have been a debacle, but as it was, it was just a boring interval of standing around. And I can certainly tell you that I have never seen more Canadian border officials rushing arrivals through customs checks, and with such haste. I assume that the word has come down from the top to get people moving, as quickly as possible, no matter what it takes.
I can also tell you that I ended up driving directly to the hockey rink, instead of home, but that only added an extra five minutes or so. All in, from the hotel on 41st Street in New York City, just steps from the New York Times’ building, to a hockey rink in mid-town Toronto where I saw the final 15 minutes of my son’s game (though I missed him scoring a goal, sadly), the trip was 10 hours and 38 minutes. If I’d driven, I’d probably have caught the whole game, the goal, and have had time to drop my bag off at home before he’d hit the ice.
So yeah. No narrative here. No version of things to sell you. This is what I saw and experienced flying in and out of Pearson International in a span of just over 40 hours. If I had to do it again, I probably would have driven, to be honest. It would have saved me some money and time. That’s not great. We can do a lot better than that. What’s the point of air travel if it’s both more expensive, more complicated and more time-consuming than driving? Not great, guys.
But a travel meltdown at Pearson? I’m not saying they haven’t happened. It just didn’t happen to me.
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