Airlines in final stages of clearing backlog of flyers at Pearson airport

TORONTO – Canada’s two biggest airlines were in the home stretch Friday of clearing the backlog of passengers who saw flights delayed or cancelled during this week’s partial shutdown of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline’s remaining travellers who had their plans disrupted when the airport temporarily stopped scores of inbound flights on Tuesday were to be in the air by day’s end.

“Overall things have pretty much returned to normal operationally and the last of the delayed passengers are expected to move today,” Fitzpatrick said.

Meanwhile, the last of the WestJet passengers impacted by the shutdown have all been booked on new flights, spokesman Robert Palmer said.

The delays and cancellations piled up after extreme cold led Canada’s biggest airport to trigger a so-called ground stop early Tuesday morning, preventing North American flights from landing for more than eight hours.

Thousands of passengers ended up sleeping at the airport that night while mountains of luggage awaiting pickup grew. Fitzpatrick said the baggage backlog has since shrunk and that the rest of the personal cargo should be reunited with owners this weekend.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which runs Pearson, says it is reviewing its response to the deep freeze, which saw 600 flights cancelled Tuesday and another 400 scuttled Wednesday.

Pearson has come under criticism for the partial shutdown, including from federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who urged the airport to take stock of what went wrong and be “better prepared should this happen again.”

Airport executive Toby Lennox apologized to passengers but defended the stoppage, saying the volume of flights needed to be better controlled as ground crews scrambled to unload travellers while their equipment and even airplane doors froze in -40 C winds.

And he said Pearson wasn’t alone on that front, pointing to major eastern seaboard hubs that collectively nixed thousands of flights as their operations strained under the harsh conditions.

“What all the air carriers and airports are doing is reducing their capacity in significant weather events,” said Lennox, the GTAA’s vice president of strategic development.

“In a sense what we did was the same thing that happened in New York and Chicago, we just called it something different.”

Lennox said the ground stop will be one part of the review, which will also focus on how well the airport communicated with passengers — something he said was “not as good as we would like.”

The review will involve airlines, ground handlers and civil aviation service NAV Canada, Lennox said, with a resulting “action plan” from Pearson to be made public.

Air Canada and WestJet flew in additional planes to ease the flight setbacks, which WestJet says affected some 22,000 of its passengers travelling to or from the airport.

Air Canada added roughly 5,000 more seats in the following days, while a chartered Boeing 747 jumbo jet carrying nearly 500 WestJet customers and 1,000 bags from Toronto touched down in Calgary on Thursday night.

“It’s probably the biggest disruption in recent memory,” WestJet’s Palmer said.