Canadian budget proposes axing, replacing CATSA

Passengers are screened by CATSA officers at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport (photo: CATSA).

The federal government is proposing to disband the centrepiece of Canada’s response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States almost 18 years ago.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Agency was created in response to the 2001 terror attacks on New York City and Washington, and given responsibility for screening passengers, bags, people who work in secure areas of airports, and Restricted Area Identity Cards. It replaced a patchwork of security companies at major airports.

Instead, Ottawa is proposing to create an independent, not-for-profit organization. The move was buried in a massive federal budget Tuesday, in a section titled “Delivering Better Service for Air Travellers.”

CATSA is funded by the government, and security fees – essentially taxes – are charged on each air ticket to pay for the service.

Though few details were available, the Canadian Airports Council applauded the move.

“Canada’s airports have long called for structural reforms to normalize CATSA’s funding structure, to ensure the organization is able to better plan long term and serve the needs of travellers well into the future,” said council President Daniel-Robert Gooch in a statement. “As is so often the case, there are many details to be worked out to ensure the transition to a new model is successful, and improves service to travellers while maintaining the high security standards we have today.”

CATSA has come under criticism for not keeping up with the explosion of air passenger traffic in recent years, which saw virtually all airports in Canada set passenger records in 2018, and saw both of Canada’s major national airlines, Westjet and Air Canada, carry more people than ever before.

For example, Saskatoon International Airport now routinely issues warnings on Twitter, advising passengers to arrive at the airport at least two hours before morning flights.

“Air travellers deserve safe and comfortable journeys through Canada’s airports, and that means being able to go through security screening in a timely and professional manner,” said Gooch.

Canada’s airports and airlines want a service that will see 95% of passengers at the eight largest airports screened within 10 minutes, with no passenger waiting more than 20 minutes to get through a security check.

Ottawa is setting aside more than $1.1 billion over the next five years to fund the transition. The money will be paid to CATSA, Transport Canada, and the RCMP, “to ensure that air travellers and workers at airports are effectively screened.”

At the same time, the government expects to recoup more than $500 million in funds that would otherwise have been used elsewhere, and through unspecified “costs to be recovered.”

The new CATSA could be modelled along the lines of NAV Canada, which was established as a private company to run the nation’s air traffic control system.

NAV Canada boasts, “As a private company, our revenues come from our aviation customers, not government. By investing in technology and controlling costs, we have kept customer rates stable while improving safety and flight efficiency.”

The government intends to introduce legislation to create the new non-profit security agency, though no timeline was given.