Former Mayor John Sewell: The Real Island Airport Story

Post City Magazine Features John Sewell's Take on the Waterfront Jet Plans john-barber-porter-airTORONTO - Some public issues start out as narrow concerns and stay that way, but some germinate and fester into bigger decisions than anyone expected. The future of the Island airport — renamed Billy Bishop Airport to give it panache by linking it to the First World War flying ace who was famous many years before the airport even existed — is one of the latter. When Porter Airlines applied to amend the agreement with the City of Toronto to permit jets at the airport, most everyone thought it was simply a question of noise. The small jets Porter said it would use apparently had a noise footprint at or below that of the propeller planes currently authorized, and in any case, argued Porter, the footprint was well within the limits set by the agreement. City council seemed ready to approve the matter. City experts, such as Richard Florida of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, argued jets on the Island was too good an idea to refuse. Some argued that Toronto Island residents and condo owners along the lake were too ready to protect their own interests in the face of creating a more competitive city. Then another issue raised its head: the runways would need to be expanded by 200 metres at each end to provide a level of safety for these jets. Boaters said this would interfere with sailboats using the Western Gap and Toronto Bay. Porter supporters dismissed their complaints as self-centred. But the main group against the proposal, NoJetsTO, aligned with the long—standing CommunityAir, among other groups, pushed on. It demanded more public meetings by city council and more studies by the city. Up to this point public meetings seemed to be tawdry affairs, stacked either by Porter supporters or by Island residents or by NoJetsTO supporters. As the mayor and his brother flexed their dubious political muscles, city council was on the verge of approving Porter's request. But then in the middle of 2013 the big questions finally found voice. What was the actual plan that Porter had in mind? If Porter were permitted to run jets in and out of the Island Airport, what about Air Canada and WestJet? How could they be stopped from using the airport? How many passengers would be using the airport? How would the airport deal with emergencies when the link between the Island and the mainland was nothing but a pedestrian tunnel now under construction? How could emergency vehicles deal with a possible crash? Protecting boats from jet blow back would require walls around the airport. The lighting infrastructure mandated by Transport Canada to ensure safe takeoff and landing would require strings of lights even beyond the 200-metre runway extensions. By the fall of 2013 it was no longer just a question of noise from jets. It was a question of scale. The city had hired consultants to look at the Porter proposal, and while they expressed serious concerns that Porter had never filed documents that explained its visions of the airport in a decade or two, the consultants were of the opinion that what was proposed was an airport that handled more than four million passengers a year, with flights landing and taking off every few minutes. In plain language, Porter’s proposal was for a facility at the same scale as the Ottawa airport being dropped on our waterfront. Those two airports are both on the edge of each city with lots of room for passenger pickup and delivery and passenger parking. There’s no easy way to accommodate these changes at the bottom of Bathurst Street without major disruption to the existing and growing residential communities in the edge of the lake. The effect of a good public debate after many months is that the issue to be decided by city council is finally in focus: amending the agreement to permit jets means the city will get an airport that significantly changes the Toronto waterfront because of its scale. The deputy mayor keeps delaying the vote, but it seems enough city councillors are ready to turn the proposal down. That is to be hoped for. What’s nice about using the Island airport is that there’s no need to get to the airport more than an hour early for a simple flight to Ottawa, Montreal or New York. The failure of Pearson Airport to offer timely service is the advantage that the Island airport offers. The political pressure by city council should be on Pearson to be a more efficient airport for travellers. JOHN SEWELL Post City Magazines' columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of Suburbs. ____________ Source: Post City Magazine, March 2014 edition