This guest article was authored by Ksenija Trahan, Canadian Immigration Lawyer, Corporate Immigration Law Firm.
Schools are almost out, and warmer months are just around the corner, exciting times are ahead for hopeful travelers. But, as airlines struggle to build capacity and workforces that have been decimated during the pandemic, what does this mean for air travel in the next few months? By all counts, we are slated for flight delays and cancellations until a new equilibrium is struck. Add to that the excessive delays caused by COVID related travel measures, and we may be looking at pandemonium.
Perhaps the first concern is the ever-changing information and lack of a harmonized approach surrounding travel testing requirements, as well as documentary proof that needs to be presented when arriving in or departing Canada. For example, travellers who are going to United States by air are still required to provide a negative test done in 24h prior to boarding. There is no similar requirement to travel to United States via land crossing, where proof of vaccination is sufficient to be allowed entry. Travelers coming to Canada no longer need to show a pre-boarding negative test, but they may be subjected to random testing upon arrival. United States has dropped the mask mandate, while Canada still requires passengers to always wear masks while onboard an aircraft or in the airport. Some countries, like Canada and United States, have abolished the quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated foreign nationals, while others, like China, have tightened the restrictions on travel and movement.
Keeping track of the different rules requires strenuous effort. This is true both for travellers, but also for airline staff, and enforcement officers on the ground, who are not always giving consistent interpretation of governing travel measures. For example, Switch Health, the agency contracted by Public Health Canada to conduct arrival testing of passengers coming into Pearson airport, can only tell us that the decision about who is tested at the airport and who is sent home with a take home kit is made randomly on the spot with no clear guidelines. Expect anything, seems to be the only reliable advice.
In the days before COVID, it took on average 15-30 seconds for a CBSA official to clear an internarial passenger upon arrival. CBSA now reports that the average processing time has increased up to four times. The main reason cited for this are the government’s COVID-19 screening questions. To avoid chaos in the customs area, some passengers are held on the aircraft or in designated waiting areas inside the terminals and slowly metered into the customs hall, per CBSA. Wait times are measured in hours.
Three things are chiefly responsible for the delays. Additional travel measures and screening questions put in place due to COVID-19, increase in traffic that has followed decrease in COVID-19 infections and easing of travel restrictions, and staff shortages in the airline and security industries. The final point is beyond the scope of this analysis, but the first two points merit a closer review. If the travel measures are eased due to perceived lowering of risk inherent in higher travel volumes, should the residual screening measures not follow suit? Is randomized testing and COVID screening still necessary for fully vaccinated passengers who have completed the screening using ArriveCAN application prior to boarding the Canada bound flight? Could the technology already existing and in regular use not be leveraged to take some weight off of the CBSA personnel and reduce travel times?
A passenger coming by air to Canada currently has to complete a COVID screening questionnaire prior to boarding, at the customs kiosk upon arrival, and then again during questioning by CBSA officer. The situation is not much better for departing passengers, who are currently being forced to wait for hours at a time to get through luggage drop-offs and security checkpoints Also, the ArriveCAN App has been and continues to be a challenge for many elderly people who are not tech savvy, and it causes additional stress form them during their travels. These are deterrents to travel and will further hurt the tourism and travel industries during the post pandemic recovery.
Perhaps there is redundancy in the system that could be removed to save us collectively from a post pandemic travel nightmare? For example, it may be time for CBSA to drop the ArriveCAN App and just rely on the airlines to confirm vaccination status pre-boarding, which they are already doing. Public Health can verify quarantine plans should these be required of travellers. The screening questions can be completed at the CBSA kiosk upon arrival where there is usually an attendant to assist travellers and the ability to have the questions pre-set in multiple languages.
While we wait to see what measures the federal government introduces to combat the post pandemic travel mayhem, what can you as a passenger do to ensure the experience goes as smoothly as possible? There are a few suggestions offered by CBSA and airlines:
Finally, consult with an immigration lawyer if you are unsure what is required upon arrival to Canada. Inform yourself, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst, seems like the best advice to give in these times.