Airport debate could land at council
Agency that owns Billy Bishop seeks to amend decades-old deal so it can update safety features
The owner of the Toronto island airport is asking the city and Transport Canada to amend the agreement between the trio that governs the lakefront facility, a move that could reopen the potentially divisive debate about the downtown air hub’s future. PortsToronto, the federal agency that owns and operates Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, confirmed it has requested the other two parties open talks on the so-called tripartite agreement that was signed 40 years ago and expires in 2033. PortsToronto says the deal needs to be updated to allow the agency to build runway end safety areas (RESAs) that Transport Canada regulations say must be in place by 2027. But revisiting the agreement for the safety zones could pave the way for more wide-ranging changes, and risks reviving the bitter fight over allowing jets at Billy Bishop that temporarily dominated city politics a decade ago. The upcoming talks could lead to the airport being further extended into Lake Ontario and kept open decades past 2033, or being shut down and its land given over to other uses. Deborah Wilson, vice-president of communications at PortsToronto, stressed that discussions about altering the agreement are still in early stages, and nothing has been decided. City staff plan to bring a report about the agency’s plans to the Jan. 30 meeting of Mayor Olivia Chow’s executive committee. However, Wilson confirmed that “in order to finance and execute” the safety areas, PortsToronto “will require certainty (about Billy Bishop’s operations) beyond 2033.” RESAs are flat, obstacle-free zones at the ends of runways intended to minimize the risk of damage or injury if a plane undershoots or overshoots a landing. Adding them at the island would be a complex effort that could require paving over more of the lake. Although PortsToronto is exploring alternatives, in a 2021 procurement document the agency estimated the required infrastructure could cost between $50 million and $130 million. The same document suggested the agency was eyeing a 50-year extension of the tripartite agreement. Wilson wouldn’t say whether PortsToronto hopes to revisit the agreement’s prohibition on jets, which Porter Airlines unsuccessfully challenged in 2013 and which federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has expressed support for overturning. Wilson said the agency is developing “a robust public consultation plan” to “ensure that the future vision for the airport reflects the needs and expectations of Toronto residents and visitors.” Proponents of Billy Bishop say the airport, popular with travellers and residents, provides a convenient alternative to Pearson International Airport, and is a boon for the local economy. PortsToronto estimates the facility generates more than $470 million in GDP for the city each year, and directly supports more than 2,000 jobs. But critics have raised concerns about the environmental, noise and traffic impacts of the facility. Ed Hore, chair of residents group Waterfront for All, argued that while an airport may have been a reasonable use of premium island property 20 years ago, “it may not be anymore.” He pointed out that millions of dollars have been spent transforming the waterfront from an industrial area into a showpiece for the city, and the UP Express now whisks passengers between downtown and Pearson in 25 minutes. “It’s a good time to have a serious look at whether there really should be an airport there, or are there better alternative uses for the land,” Hore said. A white paper Hore drafted proposes the airport land could be repurposed for a public park or much-needed housing. Hore argued that the city, not PortsToronto, should lead the public consultations on Billy Bishop, because putting the airport’s owner in charge of the process to decide its fate would be “like asking a barber if you need a haircut.” Deputy Mayor Ausma Malik, whose Spadina—Fort York ward includes the Toronto islands, agreed, saying that while PortsToronto is “an important stakeholder,” it “should not be driving any public engagement process.” “Any proposal that requires city approval must and should be led by the city,” she said. Chow campaigned against expanding the airport to allow jets when she unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2014, and more recently has opposed another plan to reshape the waterfront in the province’s proposed Ontario Place redevelopment. Her spokesperson Arianne Robinson said in an email Thursday the mayor will wait for the city report to take a position on PortsToronto’s request. Chow “will look at all the implications and ensure any decision is made through a transparent public process,” Robinson said. Like other airports, Billy Bishop was hit hard by the pandemic, and although customers have started to return, passenger volumes in 2022 were still about 38 per cent below 2019 levels, at about 1.7 million. Waterfront for All has questioned whether the airport is financially viable in the long-run, particularly after Porter, its main commercial tenant, started flying jets out of Pearson in February, prompting speculation it could leave Billy Bishop. The company currently uses Q400 turboprop planes to operate short-haul flights from the island airport to 17 year-round destinations including Ottawa, Montreal, Newark and Chicago. Brad Cicero, Porter’s director of communications, said the company intends to remain at the island airport “indefinitely,” and is “supportive” of reviewing the tripartite agreement.