Toronto’s Pickering Problem

Hi, neighbour! British Airways jet on approach to London Heathrow, May 2010 © Don McDougall

Hi, neighbour! (© Don McDougall / From Flickr)

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Toronto Pickering, where the current local time is 7:35 p.m. For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened until the aircraft has arrived at the terminal building and the seatbelt signs have been switched off.”

Huh? Toronto Pickering?

Indeed, those are the words you might hear someday on arrival in Toronto, now that there’s talk of reviving the long-dormant Toronto Pickering Airport project.

Plans for an airport on government-owned land between Markham and Pickering, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) by car northeast of downtown Toronto, dates back to the early ’70s when the Trudeau government expropriated land to build a second airport serving Canada’s largest city.

Local opposition, and the refusal of Bill Davis’s Progressive Conservative provincial government to build the infrastructure needed to service a new airport, forced the feds to back down in 1975.

The Pickering idea wasn’t dead, however. Just dormant.

Thirty-six years later, there’s talk that Trudeau’s controversial airport plan might be revived by, of all people, Stephen Harper.

With Metro Toronto’s population expected to surpass 8 million by the 2030s, it’s not surprising to see renewed pressure to build another airport.

It will meet resistance, however, from area residents and environmentalists who would sooner not have airplanes circling above and an airport’s various wastes, from de-icing fluid to jet fuel, seeping into the ground below.

Frequent fliers will balk at the fact that the new airport, 50 kilometres from downtown Toronto, will be one of North America’s most far-flung — considerably further from downtown than even today’s most notoriously distant airports, such as Edmonton (34 kms.), Dallas (37 kms.) or Denver (40 kms.)

Imagine if Winnipeg Airport were to be relocated to Ste. Anne, and you’ll get an idea of the distance involved.

Then there are the airlines.

Unless the old Pearson airport is closed, who will want to fly to and from Pickering? Given a free choice, the airlines would sooner use Pearson, which is about 23 kilometres (14 miles) closer to downtown Toronto than the proposed Pickering site.

There are several ways this could unfold:

Use Pickering for international flights, Pearson for domestic flights. The Trudeau government tried this in the ’70s when it opened Mirabel Airport as Montreal’s international long-haul airport, and kept the closer-in Dorval Airport open as the city’s domestic and U.S. airport. The effect was to gravely undermine Montreal’s viability as an airline hub.

Imagine flying from Winnipeg to Montreal Dorval, collecting your bags, and taking a shuttle bus dozens of kilometres out into the Quebec countryside to check in again for your international flights. Now you’ll understand why virtually no one wanted to connect between domestic and international flights in Montreal for many years until all flights were eventually consolidated again at Dorval (ironically re-named Montreal Trudeau in recent years, after the prime minister who undermined its viability as a hub 30 years earlier).

The passengers are mostly gone now, with Mirabel continuing to operate as a base for cargo and medevac flights — a role not likely envisaged for an expensive new Toronto airport.

Restrict Pearson to short-haul flights. This would be similar to what the U.S. has done in other two-airport markets such as Dallas and Washington, D.C. When the enormous Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) opened in the mid-’70s, a small upstart discount carrier called Southwest Airlines was allowed to continue using Dallas’s old airport, Love Field, only for flights within Texas and its neighbouring states. This worked for a while, though there was continuing pressure to either close Love Field and consolidate everything at DFW or let Love Field compete head-on with DFW.

Such a policy in Toronto would be controversial, and would not be compatible with either Air Canada’s global network or WestJet’s growing number of alliances with foreign carriers, such as KLM and Air France.

Develop Pickering as an upscale, business-friendly airport and turn Pearson into a discounts-and-charters airport. This would be similar to what has taken place in London, where the difference between Heathrow’s, Gatwick’s and Stansted’s clienteles is something like the difference between The Bay, Zellers and Dollarama. This is probably the most realistic plan for Toronto to emulate if it builds a second big airport.

It still faces a challenge, however: Britain has a strong discount airline culture thanks to its proximity to a multitude of diverse European neighbours and generous labour laws that provide workers with four weeks’ paid holiday every year. Canadians have to travel twice as far to get half the diversity, and are only assured of a mere two weeks’ paid holiday per year, so there isn’t as much room for discount carriers to grow here and fill the gates with aircraft.

It is interesting, though, to speculate on what you could do with a totally new, business-oriented Toronto airport. A train station in the basement that would whisk arriving passengers to downtown Toronto in 40 minutes? A secure transit lounge which would allow passengers to fly from the U.S. and Latin America to Europe via Toronto, and vice-versa, without having to clear Canadian border formalities?  A hotel within the secure area of the airport for the benefit of flight crews and long-stopover passengers?

Have just one airport. If the Dutch really use just one big airport in Amsterdam to serve a country of 16 million, and Hong Kong just needs one airport to serve a population of 7 million, is a second Toronto airport really that necessary? Why not just upgrade Pearson, or do what Denver did: build a new airport way out in the countryside and shut down Pearson?

Since new airports take years to plan and build, and are welcome virtually nowhere, watch for this to become a controversial issue for years to come in Toronto, Ontario and federal politics.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Toronto’s Pickering Problem

  1. W. Krawec says:

    Very interesting post. A couple of thoughts came to mind while reading it:

    -In addition to Montreal, Edmonton was another city where the feeling was that having two airports was seriously undermining its ability to attract new flights. Sure enough, once Edmonton City Centre closed (except for small aircraft), Edmonton International really began to boom in a big way. No doubt that was due in part to the growth of the region as well, but it seems that getting rid of the split really put things into overdrive for Edmonton International. Perhaps Toronto has the critical mass to overcome that issue, but as the Montreal example shows us, that isn’t necessarily a sure thing.

    -What about Hamilton’s airport? It has been used sporadically by charter carriers and is well used by cargo airlines, but perhaps it could relieve Pearson to some extent by taking on charter traffic and some mainline flights? Given that many Pearson passengers end up heading for destinations in SW Ontario, Hamilton could be a natural destination for a portion of flights currently going to Toronto. Considering the notoriously high fees that Pearson makes airlines pay, I find it a bit surprising that it isn’t better used. It’s only marginally farther from downtown Toronto than Pickering would be.

  2. Curtis Brown says:

    Interesting post. Keep in mind too that the GTA already has a second airport on the island across from downtown that mostly caters to businesspeople flying to Ottawa or Montreal on Porter, small Air Canada planes or charters.

    http://www.torontoport.com/airport_flights.asp

    Someone, at some point, will probably resurrect the idea of building a bridge out to this airport at some point. This idea was approved and then kiboshed when David Miller became mayor.

    I’m not sure why building a third airport – all the way out in Pickering, to boot – would be viable when you have a revamped Pearson, the Island Airport and Hamilton in that area already.

  3. Jeff says:

    A bridge will not be built because a tunnel is already underway.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2011/07/15/toronto-airport-tunnel.html

  4. Good blog post.

    Old joke:

    Q: Do you like Pickering?
    A: I don’t know – I’ve never pickered.

    Thank you, good night.

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