Canada’s Messy History of Big Ticket Airport Projects, from Mirabel to Porter and Pickering

Porter Airlines made news last year by announcing its purchase of a dozen Bombardier CS-100 jets that it intends to fly from its hub, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (BBTCA). Next month City Council will vote on the plan. Last June, the federal government decided to revive the Pickering airport project, first announced in 1972 but shelved three years later and unsuccessfully revisited several times since then. Both plans carry long-term consequences for travellers and local communities, and Canada’s poor record of constructing and expanding jet airports can help in showing their possible pitfalls. Our airport projects have traditionally been messy and ill-conceived, plagued by logistical errors, missed deadlines, cost overruns, countless traveller headaches, and political tensions.

Jets were first introduced in Canada in 1960, kick-starting the age of popular global air travel. Bigger, faster, and more powerful than existing turbo prop and piston aircraft, jets were more attractive to airlines and the public.[1] Because of their size, speed and weight, jets couldn’t operate safely out of airports that had been designed for older aircraft. As a result, airport facilities had to be substantively altered to meet and anticipate changes, a process that proved haphazard, uneven, and chaotic at Canadian airports as infrastructure upgrades failed to keep pace with the changing conditions and demands of jet travel.

Between 1960 and the early 1970s, the situation at major airports in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver reached crisis points as advances in jet technology and rising passenger traffic strained existing airport infrastructure and facilities. The federal government, then in charge of building and managing most of Canada’s airports, was forced to play catch-up to make these airports jet-ready. To accommodate the big aircraft and the extra traffic they generated, entire airport landscapes had to be overhauled: runways were lengthened, air terminals redesigned and added, public transit options reassessed, and access roads widened and upgraded. To its credit, the federal Department of Transport spent more than $300 million in expanding and upgrading Canadian airports between 1961 and 1971, a number that tripled over the next ten years.[2] Yet it also put the cart before the horse by failing to restrict short-term growth even though the country’s busiest airports were already bursting at the seams.

Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport experienced the lion’s share of rising traffic during this period and could not keep up: traffic far outpaced airport upgrades, keeping Toronto’s airport from meeting the demands of a maturing market for jet travel. Meanwhile, simply getting to the airport had become a separate, arduous journey in itself. Public transit options were few and auto traffic was regularly backed up to Highway 401 because of a lack of airport parking and insufficient access roads. Massive delays and logjams were frequent during holiday periods, with motorists enduring lengthy waits, some as long as four hours, while trying to get to and from the airport.[3] In 1970, long car queues during the Christmas period prompted one airport official to bemoan that “the situation here is like putting a quart into a pint pot.”[4]

To make matters worse, terminal facilities quickly succumbed to overcrowding. The situation got so bad in 1971 that airport officials had to convert a space reserved for air cargo into a temporary terminal for charter flights until Terminal II, well behind schedule, was completed and opened in 1973. Yet this relocated rather than solved the problem. In the summer of 1971, the temporary terminal processed several dozen charter flights in one evening, severely taxing the makeshift facilities. People awaiting their families arriving on planes from Europe nearly caused a riot when they tried to scale the partition separating the customs and waiting areas.[5] One angry traveller compared conditions to a “cattleyard.”[6] Needless to say, the public reputation of the airport suffered.

Since the early 1970s emergence of wide-body “jumbo” jets, which dramatically increased passenger loads and broadened the horizons of commercial air travel, Canada has built one airport big enough to handle the traffic anticipated in the Pickering plan: Montreal’s Mirabel International Airport. In the late 1960s, the federal government decided that both Toronto and Montreal needed second airports because of soaring growth and some rosy future projections, one of which inexplicably forecasted that 198 million people would use Toronto’s Pearson Airport in 2000.[7] Pickering, the choice for Toronto II, was mothballed soon after it was announced because of political conflicts and fierce local opposition. But Montreal ultimately got its second airport and Mirabel opened in 1975.

In building Mirabel, the federal government envisioned it not only as a major national and global transportation hub but also as a key economic player that would help cement Montreal’s international appeal. The city had successfully hosted Expo ’67 and scored a major victory in getting the 1976 Summer Olympics. Moreover, at the time all international flights had to land in Montreal because of prevailing bi-lateral agreements that Canada had signed to gain landing rights at specific airports abroad. This all led officials to believe that Montreal would remain an attractive air destination in the future. Announcing Mirabel, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called it a “project for the twenty-first century” and Transport Minister Jean Marchand proclaimed that airport construction alone would create 75,000 to 100,000 jobs.[8] To see its vision in reality, the Department of Transport expropriated nearly 100,000 acres of land, larger than the entire city of Montreal, and removed close to 2,000 residents from their homes to build the airport and a planned economic corridor that was to encircle it.

Mirabel was a bust from the beginning. Cost overruns plagued construction from start to finish. In seizing the land, the government projected a cost of $20 million. Yet the final tally was over $152 million, 760 percent higher than the initial projection.[9] Cost overruns continued throughout construction; dozens of consultants were hired and contracts awarded, and the final price tag for construction alone was $300 million.[10]

Beyond that, there were logistical problems that revealed the faults of the planning process. Mirabel was located more than fifty kilometres northwest of downtown Montreal and the city’s other airport, Dorval, creating transportation issues from the start. Tensions between the federal government and the Quebec provincial government scuttled construction of a multi-lane highway and rapid transit system that was to link Mirabel with the city centre and Dorval airport, forcing travellers to endure long, frustrating commutes on the two already overtaxed highways. The government also made matters worse by initially assigning international flights to Mirabel and leaving trans-border and domestic flights at Dorval, annoying airlines and inconveniencing travellers forced to change airports for connecting flights.

The final strike against Mirabel’s prospects came when revisions to old bi-lateral agreements in the 1970s enabled international flights to land at other Canadian cities, including Toronto. The agreements were broadly popular with airlines and with travellers who had final destinations other than Montreal. Montreal’s share of air traffic relative to Toronto quickly declined, significantly weakening Mirabel’s lofty growth projections. Expected to handle 17 million people by 1985, Mirabel processed only 2.5 million in 1988, far fewer than the 6.5 million who went through Dorval that same year.[11]

Industry experts, the media, and the public panned Mirabel as a white elephant in the 1980s, a promising mega-project turned expensive, colossal failure. In 2004, the airport ceased commercial operations entirely. Built to lead Canada into the twenty-first century jet age and accommodate fifty million travellers by the year 2000, Mirabel instead functions today as a cargo airport and occasional filming location.

One might say that the failures of Canadian airport developments are merely experiences from bygone eras and that policymakers and planners in the public and private sectors today have learned from past mistakes. But expanding airports remains tricky, especially if jets are introduced before their impact on an airport has been fully assessed. Because of their attractiveness to airlines and the public, jets can radically reshape how an airport looks, works, and exists in relation to its surrounding environment, for better or worse.

Even if the new Porter jets do not emit more noise, they will leave their mark on BBTCA. Lengthening the runway could just be the start of changes, especially if the jets prove to be a hit with travellers and other airlines ask for the same privilege, which WestJet has said it will. This scenario is already playing out because city officials confirmed late last year that the jet ban currently at the airport would not be amended to exempt only the Bombardier aircraft. Instead, airlines wishing to use other jets would only need to meet specified performance standards.[12]

Since Porter arrived in 2006, the airport has enjoyed a steady, unabated rise in annual passenger traffic, surpassing 2 million travellers in 2012. With air travel constituting an integral cog of global economic development, BBTCA’s proximity to downtown undeniably carries enormous potential for Toronto. This fact has polarized public opinion on the contribution airports make in shaping the city’s local footprint and enhancing its self-image as a globally influential city. Even if growth at BBTCA slows in the coming years, the introduction of jets, and the possibility of more to come, would bring irreversible effects at the airport. Like others before it, BBTCA would need to change to accommodate jets. And as history shows, from those upgrades might emerge unanticipated wrinkles in how BBTCA looks, works, and impacts travellers and non-travellers alike in and around the airport and downtown core.

The situation is different with Pickering Airport since it must be built from scratch. Relying on air traffic projections suggesting the GTA will require another airport by 2027, the federal government determined the time is ripe to resuscitate the plan. Many have questioned the need for the airport, but less has been said about the many complications of actually building a new, modern airport that realizes its value over time. Mirabel’s failure shows that building a new airport for jets is far from a sure thing. Airports have to be built to benefit the competing interests of airlines, travellers, taxpayers, and surrounding communities. Failure to accommodate everyone can make or break a project, hindering its overall effectiveness, public reputation and profit potential. These lessons must be carried forward to ensure that Pickering, if built, does not suffer the same fate as Mirabel.

Big airports live like cities themselves, influencing how the wider urban environment looks and functions, grows, and changes.[13] Building and upgrading them is no small task. Major, high-traffic airports are much greater than the sum of their parts, functioning as unstable, complex systems that must work in harmony to be effective. Airport projects today are risky and full of unpredictable variables, each capable of throwing a wrench into perfectly laid plans. As Toronto deals with the possibility of building a new airport and upgrading another, Canada’s messy airport history ought to remind us of the many costs–financial, physical, environmental, and social–of planning airports around jets. With global air travel even more dominant today, it is difficult to think the stakes have radically changed or become any simpler.


[1] For an overview of the history of commercial air travel in Canada, see Peter Pigott, Flying Colours: a History of Commercial Aviation in Canada (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997).

[2] W.H. Huck, “The Canadian Air Transport Administration: Its Philosophy, Its Framework for the Future,” Canadian Aeronautics and Space Journal, October 1971, 325.

[3] The Globe and Mail, July 1, 1972, 5.

[4] The Globe and Mail, January 2, 1971, 6.

[5] The Globe and Mail, July 5, 1971, 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Walter Stewart, Paper Juggernaut: Big Government Gone Mad (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), 41.

[8] The Montreal Gazette, March 28, 1969, 2.

[9] Stewart, Paper Juggernaut, 31.

[10] Julie Harris, “Airports,” in Norman Ball, ed., Building Canada: A History of Public Works (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 310.

[11] T.M. McGrath, History of Canadian Airports, 2nd edition (Toronto: Lugas, 1992), 155.

[12] A City official confirmed this point in response to a question about the consequences of lifting the current ban on jets in the Tripartite Agreement during a September 19, 2013 town hall meeting about Porter’s expansion plan.

[13] On the emergence of the “airport city,” see John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).