How weather-driven flight delays feed Pearson Airport’s boredom economy

How weather-driven flight delays feed Pearson Airport’s boredom economy

Stranded passengers aren't entirely bad for business at Pearson. (Image: Richard Hsu) Stranded passengers aren’t entirely bad for business at Pearson. (Image: Richard Hsu)

There are few things more boring than waiting at an airport, the sterile doctor’s office of the travel industry. Considering their supreme blandness, it’s easy to forget that airports are big business. When Toronto’s Pearson Airport grounded hundreds of flights for several hours because of January 7’s polar-vortex-induced cold, there was a lot of concern, not just because of the thousands of stranded passengers, but also because Pearson is supposed to be a reliable economic machine. The eight-hour disruption has been under so much media scrutiny that it’s now the subject of an internal probe.

Pearson’s $11.5 billion GDP is double that of Prince Edward Island’s. In 2013, 36 million passengers went through its gates, and many of them shopped in the airport’s hundreds of stores, restaurants and art galleries. In all, Pearson directly or indirectly employs 114,000 people. (There are even dinosaur fossils on display in terminal one, so you know it has everything.) It, like other air-travel hubs around the world, is a micro-economy.

But what happens to that economy when people are stuck in the airport?

For one, airlines suffer. It’s hard to pity the likes of Air Canada, but, when flights get grounded because of freezing temperatures, executives start getting heart palpitations.

Airlines operate on some of the smallest profit margins out there, and so losing just three travel days a year can mean the difference between a profit and loss. Not only do airlines not have the kind of turnover they need in order to be profitable, but, when flights are grounded or delayed for sustained periods of time, they also have to provide food and accommodation vouchers for their customers. Air Canada has more than 600 flights going through Pearson each day, and those flights carry thousands of people. That’s a lot of Milestones coupons. And it’s arguably in Air Canada’s interest to hand them out liberally: it should be trying to avoid more customer-service snafus right now.

But an airline’s loss is an airport tenant’s gain. Pearson’s Goodlife Fitness sees significantly more customers when flights are grounded. “People come to rent shoes, shirts, socks, tops…they go to the gym, relax and get a massage,” said Jen K, a general manager at the gym. “There’s no bad part to flight delays for us.”

Things are slightly different for Pearson’s Mill Street Pub. According to general manager Kim Jensen, the restaurant sees a big rush at the start of a delay, but the beer-buying doesn’t tend to last. “With technology, people know whether or not to leave the airport, and how long it’s likely to be,” she said. “We get really packed at first, and then there doesn’t tend to be many people.”

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which oversees Pearson airport, told us through a spokesperson, Corrinne Madden, that Pearson’s store owners generally say they did better business during the January 7 ground stop. She added that a study done by the GTAA a few years ago suggests the economic benefit to vendors is greatest during flight delays under two hours and over six hours. Hours three to six are presumably when the interminable airport frustration sets in, before passengers realize—as they’re bound to, sooner or later—that they can shop their way out of their stupor.