On November 27th, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau confirmed he is rejecting a request to expand Toronto’s Billy Bishop Toronto City airport to accommodate jets, fulfilling a Liberal Party campaign promise. But PortsToronto and the city are still working on studies of the idea, which they won’t release until early 2016, and with some big money hanging in the balance, the vision of jets at Billy Bishop may rise again.
The drive to fly
As CBC notes, “Porter Airlines, which is based at Billy Bishop, wants to fly Bombardier CS-100 jets out of that airport.” Porter is Canada’s third largest airline, though a distant third behind Air Canada and WestJet. “Porter…has lobbied Toronto city council since 2013 to extend the runway at Billy Bishop for the Bombardier jets, a move that would enable the airline to fly to more destinations” according to CBC. Airways News calls it “critical” for Porter’s growth “to win the right to operate the CS-100s at Billy Bishop.” Airways News explains: “Between 2006 and 2011, Porter was a growth engine, building rapidly up to a fleet of 26 Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft. But due to constraints at its home base…and a lack of suitable destinations within the Q400’s performance window, Porter has been basically stagnant since that point.” Porter has placed an order for as many as 30 of the larger, longer range CS-100 jets worth more than US$2 billion, but has made it contingent on clearance to fly them out of Billy Bishop, and that will require a 400 metre (about 1300’) extension of the runway – 200 metres at each end. A 1983 agreement between the Government of Canada, PortsToronto and the City of Toronto (the Tripartite Agreement) banned jets from Billy Bishop due to noise considerations, so all three of those parties must agree to any exception.
Billy Bishop sits on an island just off Toronto’s waterfront, so many travellers, especially business travellers, would welcome jet service to and from more cities there. But there is also vocal opposition to the airport expansion. The idea of expanding Billy Bishop to accommodate the new jets birthed a community group called “NoJetsT.O.,” whose website puts it this way: “Jets will turn our waterfront into Pearson-by-the-Lake, increasing pollution, gridlock, and wasting your tax dollars. Simply put, jets don't fit on our waterfront.” The group has been successful casting this as an issue of quality of life, as well as billions of dollars investment in waterfront revitalization. During the national election this past October, the Liberal Party committed to blocking the expansion, which Transport Minister Marc Garneau affirmed in late November.
But it’s not a simple issue. In this Financial Post article, a Pratt & Whitney vice president insisted that the CS-100’s hi-tech engines actually make it quieter than the turboprop aircraft Porter is flying out of Billy Bishop now. And the new plane’s manufacturer, Bombardier, has had serious enough financial problems that the government of Quebec has given it a billion dollar bailout. With Porter’s order contingent on the expansion, that raises the stakes still further. As Airways News said about a week before Garneau’s decision: “Porter’s cause still has political support, and if it can mobilize its constituents (passengers, particularly business travelers, who value the convenience of Billy Bishop) a little better, then it may still win out in the long run. But for the moment, the status of runway expansion and jets at Billy Bishop is close to dead on arrival.” The next act in the drama is when the city and PortsToronto release their studies early next year, and you can bet people on both sides will be hanging on every word.
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