TorontoStar: Fees could go up but lines could move faster if airport security privatized

TorontoStar: Fees could go up but lines could move faster if airport security privatized

Ottawa is considering setting new service standards and the privatization of the crown corporation responsible for security screening as ways to better cope with growing passenger numbers.

By BRUCE CAMPION-SMITH

Ottawa Bureau

Wed., March 21, 2018

OTTAWA—The federal government is looking at privatizing the crown corporation responsible for security screening at airports nationwide to better cope with growing passenger numbers but the possible move is sparking worries that travellers will face higher fees, the Star has learned.

The Liberal government is seriously considering a plan to spin off the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and impose new service standards — similar to those in place at big airports around the world — to get most passengers screened in 10 minutes or less, industry sources say.

That could be good news for travellers who have chafed at delays at security checkpoints at Canadian airports in recent years.

But it’s raising questions whether existing fees paid by passengers for security screening — $7 for a domestic flight and close to $25 for an international trip — will have to rise to pay for the enhanced service.

Ottawa has been under pressure to fix growing delays at airport security checkpoints. Those backlogs have been felt most at big airports such as Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Vancouver International Airport but are now being seen at smaller airports too.

One option under serious consideration by Transport Minister Marc Garneau would see the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), now a crown corporation, become a not-for-profit entity similar to Nav Canada, the private body that runs the country’s air traffic control system.

Nav Canada was created in 1996 to assume duties that had been handled by Transport Canada. It was the world’s first fully privatized air traffic control operator, funded by revenues from users of the system, rather than taxpayers.

Transport Canada consulted with aviation industry groups last fall about a new governance arrangement for the security agency and the Nav Canada model emerged as a favoured choice, overseen by a board of industry representatives and financially self-sufficient, relying on service fees.

“That is their preferred option,” one industry source told the Star, speaking on background because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the government discussions.

While industry officials welcome government attention to the issue, they worry that the creation of a new agency would take years to become a reality and do nothing to ease the current roblems.

“We still have an immediate need to address the wait times and the service standards. That’s not going away. Passenger growth continues unabated but the resources aren’t there to support it,” the source said.

CATSA was created in 2002 to oversee the screening of passengers, employees and baggage at 89 airports across the country. In 2016-17,

61.8 million passengers were screened, up from 51 million travellers in 2012-13. That is expected to grow to nearly 69 million by 2021-22.

In the last fiscal year, the agency says it screened 86 per cent of passengers in 15 minutes or less at the country’s eight busiest airports — down from 96 per cent in 2012-13.

Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, said that security screening has been the biggest challenge for many Canadian airports “for quite some time” due to the dramatic growth in air travel, up 35 per cent over the last five years.

“CATSA is not set up properly to meet the demands of a dynamic, fast-growing industry,” Gooch said in an interview.

He said that part of the problem is that the revenue from travellers’

fees goes into general government coffers and not all is sent to CATSA, depriving it of the resources it needs The airports council is not taking a position of what model would work best but Gooch said that “service needs to improve.”

“You need an approach to funding that allows the resources to keep pace with demand . . . because growth is going to continue,” Gooch said.

CATSA did not comment on potential changes. But the agency has acknowledged the challenges it faces. In its most recent annual report vice-chair Peter Wallis said the agency was working with Transport Canada to develop an “operationally effective funding strategy to address ongoing inflationary pressures, passenger growth and airport expansion issues in both the long and short-term.”

Garneau’s office also declined to comment Thursday and instead pointed to a speech the minister gave in late 2016 outlining the government’s transportation priorities. In that speech, Garneau said that airport security needed improvement, saying that too many travellers “are waiting too long.”

“We need to do better,” Garneau said, as he hinted at potential remedies, including governance changes.