Toronto Pearson Airport facing hundreds of cancelled flights day after calling rare ‘ground stop’

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
Passengers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport spent hours in long lines Tuesday dealing with weather-related delays. The airport is warning there could be more problems on Wednesday.

Thousands of airline passengers flying through Toronto remain frustrated by delays, cancellations and communication issues as the country's largest airport continues to recover from freezing weather that shut down the airport to arriving planes for more than eight hours yesterday.

Toronto's Pearson International Airport remained in a state of chaos on Wednesday, reporting more than 230 cancelled arriving flights and 165 departing flights, primarily to and from winter storm-hit regions such as eastern Canada and northeastern U.S.

The cancellations follow a Tuesday similarly beset by troubles, when plunging temperatures and freezing wind wreaked havoc on mechanics and made working outside untenable.

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Air Canada COO Klaus Goersch said in a statement that they will be running a “reduced flight schedule” on Wednesday due to the severe weather over the past few days.

The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) made the call to issue a "ground stop," shutting the airport to arriving flights until 10 a.m. on Tuesday. The result was thousands of passengers being stranded at the airport, unable to retrieve luggage and forced to stand in hours-long lines in bids to rebook or reschedule their flights.

The GTAA is facing criticism for the decision to issue the ground stop – the first to be issued in more than 15 years – and for what has been described as a failure in communication. Confusion amid the ground stop meant that flights were still arriving, but planes were unable to be prepared for departure, leaving passengers stranded while more arrived to join the crowd.

GTAA vice-president Toby Lennox told the Toronto Star the ground stop was called as a last resort. “It’s just never been this extreme,” he told the newspaper. “No matter how much you prepare, you’re not going to be able to make the event go away. I can’t prepare to make the weather go away.”

Some remain skeptical of the need for a ground stop considering western cities such as Winnipeg and Edmonton regularly face frigid conditions without shutting down the airport. Other major airports caught in this week's freezing temperatures also managed to stay operational despite delays, including those in Ottawa, Montreal and New York.

GTAA spokesman Scott Armstrong told CTV News that airports such as Winnipeg are used to dealing with cold weather.

"They are equipped for it. They have gear to deal with it for four or five months of the year," he said. "We do not see this on a regular basis so it turns into a different operation. Also, if Winnipeg slows down for two hours it doesn't have the implications and ripple effect that it does at Pearson."

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Pearson is Canada’s busiest airport, with more than 700 flights arriving daily from across Canada, the U.S. and the world. Many international flights from other Canadian cities include a stop or transfer in Toronto. The result, on a good day, is a complex but sophisticated web of inbound and outbound flights that rely on precise timing and quick turnaround. On a bad day, that web can become a frustrating knot.

Environment Canada cancelled their wind chill warning on Wednesday and temperatures had climbed from -23C on Tuesday to a more reasonable -13C Wednesday morning. The wind chill had also warmed, from -40C on Tuesday to -25C on Wednesday. Still, Pearson Airport was warning travellers to expect delays.

The backlog remains, and only time will untie the knot.

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