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Toronto / U.S. Travel Outrage

By Michael Reichmann

Broken

I’m done. That’s it. Toronto Peason International Airport is broken, and I’m not going to fly through it from Canada to the U.S. until its fixed. In fact, I may not fly to the U.S from Pearson International any more at all. Here’s what’s wrong.

There are four entities involved when one flies to the U.S out of Toronto’s Terminal One; ones airline (Air Canada in my case), CATSA (The Canadian Air Transport Safety Agency), the U.S. Immigration Service, and the folks that run the airport – the GTAA, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. They are the core of the problem.

On a recent flight from Toronto to Los Angeles I arrived at the airport two and a half hours prior to departure time yet I barely made my flight. The reason stated simply is that the GTAA hasn’t a clue about how to handle passengers in these days of heightened airport security.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow. If you’ve been through Toronto on a U.S. bound flight since Christmas ’09, you know what’s involved. Here’s my take on the problem.

The airlines are doing the job of checking you in and tagging your bags. On a busy Monday morning this took the usual 30 minutes. That’s when the trouble begins. There is a huge bottle neck at the entrance to the U.S. Immigration Hall. Because security screening lies on the other side of this hall, after one has been cleared and due to heightened security measures (full body searches, with every bag being searched by hand, with all items removed for scrutiny), it now takes about 10 minutes per person to pass through the actual security check.

The security area was never designed to handle this, and therefore passengers who clear immigration are backing up back into the immigration hall. The U.S. authorities won’t allow this, and therefore there is a triage being performed at the entrance to the immigration hall. Therefore only passengers whose flights are leaving within one hour are being allowed through.

This has the intended effect of streaming the necessary number of people through both immigration and security but what it creates is total chaos outside the hall.

Once you’ve checked in with the airline and have your bags tagged you are told to stand in a line to enter the hall. But, the line, which has many hundreds of people in it, goes nowhere and never moves. I mean never. The reason is that it isn’t really a queue. It is simply a very long holding pen. But when you ask the airline and terminal staff what’s going on, and why the line isn’t moving, they simply shrug.

If you’re curious and a bit aggressive you leave the line and wander over to the doors to the immigration hall. There you find a huge crowd of people gathered at the entrance and about a dozen CATSA, GTAA and U.S. Immigration personnel. About every 15 minutes one of them yells out that if your flight is leaving in one hour or less, you should come though the crowd. About once every 30 minutes a similar announcement is made over the PA system, but isn’t really audible anywhere else in the terminal, especially at the back of the line, which has stretched for hours into another section of the building, hundreds of meters away.

In other words, the line to enter the immigration and security check area is a sham. It goes nowhere and never moves, except when people leave it to crowd around the entrance as their flight time approaches less than 1 hour away.

But here’s the scary part. Right across from the entrance to the hall, just inside the door from the street where people are loading and unloading from cars, busses, and taxies, is a mailbox. A fill size Canada Post mailbox.

Are you getting the picture yet? Someone could pull up outside the door to the airport departures area, drop a fair sized package into the mailbox, and then calmly get back in their waiting car and drive off. There are literally hundreds of people milling about within a 50 foot radius of the mailbox. It’s jamb packed with luggage carts and people, with barely room to move.

Not to give anyone ideas, but someone has to say something. So I did. Once I had cleared immigration and security and was on my way to my gate, with just minutes to spare I stopped two armed RCMP officers who were walking down the corridor. I told that about my concern regarding the mailbox upstairs. When I did they both rolled their eyes, and one said, “Welcome to Toronto”.

I asked, “You mean you know this and can’t do anything about it? They smiled. I asked, “You mean its the GTAA?”

They just shook their heads sadly and walked away.

Can you sense my anger and outrage? As we all know, the whole airport security process is mostly theater, and yet here was an obvious security hole and it is being ignored because the folks that run the airport want there to be a mailbox at that location, for whatever reason.

Telling people to arrive at the airport two to three hours before their flight, and then have them wait till one hour prior to departure without telling them what’s going on is unacceptable. It would be simple enough to create separate queues for departures, so that people leaving at 9AM, and people leaving at 10AM, and people leaving at 11AM are all not milling around together in a jumble, not knowing what’s going on.

It’s a safety hazard, a security hole of the first magnitude, and a monstrous inconvenience to the traveling public.

Then there are the restaurants, shops and lounges that lie inside the gate area. As I literally ran to my flight I saw that they were almost completely empty. Everyone was rushing to their flights which were to leave in minutes. No one had time to buy a coffee or a magazine, let alone a souvenir. As for going to the bathroom after three hours in line – forget it!

The almost total lack of real security and public safety inside Person Terminal One verges on the criminal, and should be investigated, in particular the executives at the GTAA that allow this outrage to exist. What’s the point of checking for explosives on passengers and luggage boarding aircraft when where they gather to enter the security zone is totally unprotected and allowed to become a crowd control, personal safety and fire hazard. Does being killed in mid-air make you any deader than on the ground?

So – I’m done with Toronto Airport, particularly for flying to the U.S.A. I’ll drive to Buffalo from now on, or most likely, I simply wont fly to the U.S. anymore. The hassle and danger just isn’t worth it.

February, 2010

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UPDATE

In the first half day since Toronto / U.S. Travel Outrage was first published I have received more e-mail about it than anything else that I have ever written on this site in the past 11 years.

Thank you everyone for your thoughts, support and suggestions. Unfortunately because I am traveling in the U.S this week on a shoot (which is why this was all reported on in the first place), I am constrained in my ability to reply as I would like. So please accept this as my thanks for the communications.

I would also like to point out that I received a call from a senior representative of the GTAA and we spoke for about a half hour. He was very concerned as well as understanding, and indicated that he would be investigating all of the issues that were raised, and also would reply to them in due course. I believe that the GTAA is well aware of the problems that exists but in large measure finding solutions is difficult because the airport is subject to at least a half dozen government and administrative jurisdictions, and they don't all play nicely together, even in the face of consumer outrage.

That being the case, I have decided that I will not be flying to the U.S. out of Toronto Pearson until the current situation is fixed. Porter from the Island airport is one solution, as is driving to Buffalo, which also has less expensive air fares. And, there's always simply accepting the fact that air travel has become a major pain in the butt, and simply isn't worth the hassle anymore except when absolutely necessary.


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Concepts: Toronto Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Security, Air Canada, Immigration to the United States, World's busiest airports by passenger traffic, Star Alliance, Airport security

Entities: Toronto, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Air Canada, U.S.A., Canada, Peason International Airport, Immigration Hall, Island airport, Terminal One, Christmas, the GTAA, U.S. Immigration Service, Canadian Air Transport Safety Agency, RCMP, Michael Reichmann, Porter

Tags: security, airport, immigration, flights, Toronto, immigration hall, minutes, airport security, Toronto Airport, 30 minutes, security check, outrage, security hole, Toronto Airport Authority, Peason International Airport, airport security process, safety, long holding pen, actual security check, busy monday morning, Transport Safety Agency, Canada Post mailbox, security check area, obvious security hole, fair sized package, armed rcmp officers, half dozen government, luggage boarding aircraft, expensive air fares, airline, Immigration Service, security measures, security screening, Immigration personnel, Island airport, bound flight, security area, huge bottle, recent flight, huge crowd