Passengers rate Toronto’s Pearson as one of the worst airports in North America, according to a new study

If you saw the chaotic lineups, baggage pileups and viral tweets this summer, this might come as little surprise: Our airport isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser.

A customer satisfaction study released Wednesday by a US research firm ranked Toronto’s Pearson International Airport 16th out of 20 major North American airports.

The study looked at six factors, in order of importance: Terminal facilities, airport arrival/departure, baggage claim, security check, check-in/baggage check, and food, beverage and retail.

“They (Pearson) had an incredible jump in passenger volume. And that has a direct impact on passenger satisfaction,” said study author Michael Taylor, head of travel intelligence at JD Power, a US-based research and consulting firm.

Pearson ranked 15th in the “mega” airport category, with an overall score of 755 points out of a possible 1,000, just behind Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 14th, and well behind top-place finisher Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, which had 800 points.

Pearson finished ahead of some well-known American travel hubs like Boston’s Logan International, Los Angeles International, Chicago’s O’Hare International and Newark, NJ’s Liberty International.

Other Canadian airports in smaller categories also underperformed in the rankings.

The surge in travelers as the economy reopened from COVID-19 restrictions slammed airports across the continent hard, said Taylor, adding that Pearson suffered less of a relative drop than most.

“None of the mega airports improved their score from a year ago. San Francisco stayed put, but everyone else was negative double digits,” said Taylor. “Toronto didn’t do that badly. Miami was off 58 points. Toronto was off 25 points from a year ago.”

A spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Pearson, dismissed the JD Power study, saying its sample size was too small to be statistically significant.

“JD Power surveyed just 637 Toronto Pearson passengers for the survey. When compared to the millions of passengers that have traveled through our doors, that equals 0.003 per cent of all passengers,” said GTAA spokesperson Tori Gass. “We believe this sample size is too small to draw any relevant conclusions.”

Gass also said it wasn’t fair to compare Canadian and US airports given the longer and more extensive COVID-related shutdowns and safety protocols in Canada than south of the border.

“As the COVID protocols and restrictions have been different between Canada and the US, this may not be an accurate comparison. Pearson rapidly went from one of the world’s most shutdown major airports to one of its busiest,” Gass said.

The National Airlines Council of Canada agreed that COVID restrictions played a role in the airport chaos, and contributed to Pearson’s low ranking.

“While these results are disappointing, they are not surprising. Airports are a federal government responsibility, and the government’s underresourcing of airports, coupled with its continuation of no-longer-effective, pandemic-era restrictions, has resulted in major backlogs at some of Canada’s largest airports,” said NACC president Jeff Morrison in a written statement.

Morrison argued that COVID restrictions, including the use of the ArriveCan app that arriving passengers must fill out before landing, are more than a passenger annoyance.

“It also hampers the Canadian economy’s recovery from the pandemic, as air transport is a crucial economic driver,” Morrison said.

Former NHL star Ryan Whitney referred to Pearson as the worst airport on the planet in a video that went viral after he posted it on Twitter this summer.

“This is the worst airport on Earth. I’m telling you, there’s no other airport like this,” said an exasperated Whitney in a video detailing his derailed journey from Edmonton to Boston via Toronto.

Whitney’s June video came at the peak of the Pearson chaos, when passengers complained of everything from lengthy customs lineups to long waits on the runways and lost baggage.

One factor that hurt airports across the board during the past year was that airlines were crowding passengers into fewer and fewer flights, said Taylor. That meant that airports saw larger surges than they otherwise would have.

“Everyone has cut back their flight schedules, so they have fewer aircraft with a higher percentage of people on them. So that just means you’re going to concentrate your operations in a shorter amount of space and time, and put more people in the facility,” Taylor said.

Longer-term, Taylor said, Pearson suffers the same problems as some major American airports, including Boston’s Logan International and Chicago’s O’Hare: lousy road access, and an increase in passenger volumes far beyond what they were designed for.

“O’Hare was a great idea at the time, but it outgrew the space. Same thing’s happening at Pearson. It might have been great 25 years ago, but it’s totally inadequate today,” said Taylor.

The GTAA’s Gass, however, pointed to the Airports Council International’s world’s airport service quality program. In the ACI’s rankings? Pearson’s number one in its category.

“ACI is the global trade representative of the world’s airports, and our recognition as the ‘Best Large Airport in North America serving more than 40 million passengers’ for the fifth year in a row is an indicator of our airport’s performance on a global stage, Gass said.


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