Wintry woes put Canadian holiday travel on ice, as airports brace for another blast
December 22, 2022 By Nono Shen and Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER — The woes for travellers stranded by heavy snow at Vancouver’s airport have spread across the country and Toronto Pearson International Airport is now advising of an approaching storm that could derail things further.
Among the passengers worrying about making it home for Christmas was Fort McMurray, Alta., resident Jennifer Alberto, who sat on a bench at Vancouver International Airport Wednesday morning, cradling her six-year-old son’s head while he caught some precious sleep.
They and Jennifer’s husband, Jason, had spent a second night in the crowded terminal since arriving Monday evening on a flight from the Philippines. Their connecting flight home was cancelled.
“We don’t know what’s going on. We asked the same question this morning: what’s the plan? There is no plan,” Jennifer said.
The Albertos are hardly alone in their plight, and they are closer to home than many other international travellers.
A statement from Vancouver’s airport says it halted all international arrivals for about 48 hours to deal with “congestion” caused by 27 centimetres of snow Tuesday.
The restriction, affecting 17 airlines and approximately 30 flights, is to lift at 5 a.m. Friday.
Airport officials issued another statement later Tuesday, saying improved weather and work by crews clearing runways had allowed an increase in takeoffs and landings, but delays and cancellations were expected to continue.
Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization said two runways at Victoria International Airport were to remain shut until 6 p.m. Wednesday due to snow. The airport was one of the hardest hit by Tuesday’s storm, receiving 36 centimetres of snow.
A fresh blast of wintry weather is expected to arrive in the region Thursday night.
Brian Proctor, an Environment Canada meteorologist based in Alberta, said another round of snow is forecast before shifting to rain late Friday or Saturday morning, as frigid temperatures begin to rise.
“It does look like it’s going to be a fairly significant precipitation event again,” Proctor said.
The highest accumulations of snow are expected in the Fraser Valley, though he said parts of Metro Vancouver could see up to 15 centimetres.
Trevor Boudreau, director of external relations at Vancouver International Airport, said halting foreign arrivals was a necessary step in light of the forecast.
“What that will do over the next 48 hours is giving us time to clear through the backlog. We have to prepare for the next new event that’s going to come late Thursday and into Friday,” he said in an interview. Boudreau predicted a “challenging week ahead.”
At Pearson, officials have advised travellers to check with their airline because airport operations could be affected by a storm forecast to arrive Thursday and potentially cause blizzard conditions the next day.
That would add to ripple effects from the disruptions in Vancouver and extreme cold in Alberta, which have already created challenges for holiday season travellers across Canada.
“By the time you look at what’s forecast to be in Toronto on Friday and what’s forecast in the Vancouver area over the next couple of days, we’ve got two of the major hubs in the country with aviation problems,” Proctor said.
Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said Toronto should be mostly clear on Thursday, but the coming storm will start as light rain, snow or a mix, before a cold front arrives later Friday.
“That will change temperatures drastically to the negative side and we’ll see a very rapid transition from rain to snow, at times heavy, plus very strong wind gusts.”
The combination of snow and strong winds will create “very hazardous travel conditions across Ontario, across southern Quebec and then, eventually, through the Maritimes,” Flisfeder said.
Bad weather on either side of the country has already resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations.
A statement from Air Canada suggests nearly 600 of its flights haven’t been completed over the last five days.
About 935 Air Canada flights depart every day worldwide, it said, with a flight completion rate “well above” 98 per cent since the beginning of December.
But over the past five days, the rate dropped to 87.25 per cent, the statement said, citing storms in Ontario and B.C.
Air Canada said travellers should rebook online if their flight is scrubbed, while WestJet is offering full refunds to passengers choosing to cancel proactively.
A statement from WestJet showed 86 flights cancelled Wednesday, a number that was expected to rise throughout the day.
It said 240 flights were grounded Tuesday due to disruptions in Vancouver along with frigid temperatures in Calgary and Edmonton, while 250 flights were cancelled Sunday and Monday.
The statement from Vancouver International Airport acknowledges that halting international arrivals until two days before Christmas will come as a blow.
“We fully recognize the impact this will have on individuals and families over the holiday season. However, the congestion caused by Tuesday’s storm events makes this action necessary,” it said.
A significant number of planes remain at the airport, causing congestion at its airfield, airport officials said in their subsequent statement.
Calgary airport officials issued a statement saying “it’s been a tough few days of travel delays for many.”
“While the harsh weather slows things down, we are working to ensure that first and foremost our guests and staff stay safe during these weather events.”
Officials at the Saskatoon airport said flights are departing and arriving, but “compounding issues from weather-related events this week in other parts of the country, notably Vancouver and Calgary,” have led to delays and cancellations.
Airlines are also facing ongoing challenges with crew and aircraft availability, it said, adding passengers are advised to check their flight status directly with the airline.
Back in Vancouver, the Albertos worry about having to spend another night at the airport.
Jennifer Alberto said she was also concerned about a friend on the same flight from the Philippines, a new immigrant bound for Calgary who slept at Vancouver’s airport on his first two nights as a Canadian resident because his connection was cancelled.
“He just came here and needs more support,” she said.
— with files from Amanda Stephenson in Calgary
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