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GTA leaders call for changes at Pearson after ground stop

A passenger looks up at the flight status sign at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Jan. 8, 2013. A weather-related shutdown of the airport this week was met with widespread criticism.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Municipal leaders in the Greater Toronto Area are calling for changes to Canada's busiest airport, after the temporary shutdown of incoming North American flights this week stranded thousands of travellers.

The incident also raises questions about oversight and accountability at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority – its board of directors has the unilateral power to appoint all but three of its 15 members.

"Quite frankly in this case, the airports authority did not do a very good job at all," Gary Carr, chairman of Halton Region, said in an interview on Friday.

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Mr. Carr, whose region encompasses the municipalities of Burlington, Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills, said the GTAA needs to improve its customer service and handling of frigid weather. A deep freeze prompted the agency to institute a Tier 2 ground stop at 11 p.m. Monday, halting the arrival of North American flights to Pearson International Airport for 11 hours.

Mr. Carr said he plans to discuss his concerns with federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, a good friend and the MP for the riding of Halton. Ms. Raitt this week called on authorities at Pearson to conduct a review of their handling of the situation, saying she hopes it will lead to improvements.

Mr. Carr also wants to hear directly from Howard Eng, chief executive officer of the GTAA, and plans to invite him to appear before a public meeting of Halton councillors once the agency completes its report on this week's problem.

Municipal leaders do not participate in the governance of the GTAA. While municipalities, several professional organizations and local boards of trade can nominate candidates for director positions, the board members themselves have the ultimate say in who gets appointed. The board can also reject all the candidates proposed by a municipality and appoint someone else instead.

"We have no say, other than complaining," said Roger Anderson, chairman of Durham Region, east of Toronto.

The Globe and Mail attempted to reach 10 of the GTAA directors this week, but none responded to phone messages and e-mails.

These rules governing the board do not apply to the federal and provincial governments, which together can appoint three members. These members, in turn, must be approved by the board.

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The province appointed the chairman of the GTAA, which oversees Pearson. But Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne refused to discuss the agency's decision to temporarily halt landings for hundreds of flights in Toronto, saying responsibility for the airport rests entirely with Ottawa.

For his part, Mr. Anderson of Durham Region criticized the GTAA for its poor communications with stranded passengers – including himself. He sat on the tarmac at Pearson for four hours last Tuesday after his flight from Florida landed at 1 a.m.

"I think what they have to understand is that what they do affects all of us drastically," he said.

Mr. Eng pledged Thursday to publicly release the agency's "action plan" after its own review.

Former federal transportation minister David Collenette said the publicly owned airport has a responsibility to explain the ground halt to the public.

"You're going to have to let the customers, the clients, the wider clientele, the shareholders, which are the people of Canada, know what happened," Mr. Collenette said.

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Mr. Collenette contends that, over all, the non-profit governance structure at Pearson and other major airports has worked well, but said it would be a good idea for Parliament to review the model to see whether improvements can be made to address such things as accountability.

Looking at the structure and considering changes to it is "more than desirable," he said.

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About the Authors

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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