The Fight Over Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport Escalates With Air Canada Taking a Stand

Air Canada

If you’re looking for an entertaining airport fight, then you might want to look north toward Canada. Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport lies right near downtown on a small island in Lake Ontario. This airport has been a point of contention in Canada for years, but things are starting to get ugly again. The airport’s biggest tenant, Porter, wants a runway extension so it can fly jets. Air Canada, however, has come out firmly against such an idea.

Toronto Airports

Toronto’s main airport has long been Pearson, about 30 minutes to the west of downtown Toronto. This airport, a huge hub for Air Canada, is expensive for airlines to use but generally serves the city well. Its biggest downfall? Travelers from Toronto have to navigate through a horde of of rabid Leafs fans visiting the Molson brewery right outside the airport grounds before getting to the terminal. There is, however, another option. Toronto has a second airport in Billy Bishop, often referred to as City Centre Airport, and it’s extremely convenient for those downtown.

This airport has a tortured history, and its use is heavily restricted. There is a noise ordinance and airlines can’t fly jets at all from there. (Turboprops are ok though.) Back in 1990, a regional airline that would eventually be part of Air Canada Jazz began service at the airport to Montreal and Ottawa. That service lasted in one form or another until 2006 when all hell broke loose.

The owner of the small terminal building decided to get into the airline game. So, he sent Air Canada a notice that it was being evicted. Days later, the launch of Porter Airlines was announced. The airport is on a small island with a mere 4,000 foot runway, so space is at a premium. Though Air Canada wanted to continue service, it had no terminal. That meant the airline had to pull out, giving Porter a monopoly.

By Fall, Porter had launched using Q400 turboprop aircraft, and it had a huge advantage. The airport would literally be steps from the city’s business district if not for a football field-length stretch of water in between. Ferries leave every 15 minutes and cost pedestrians nothing. The long-proposed foot bridge will eventually be built, I’m sure, but even with the short ferry ride, the time savings were tremendous. And nobody but Porter could fly there for 5 years. Finally, in 2011, Air Canada was able to get back into the airport thanks to a requirement the the terminal be open for use by others (at a large cost, of course). Today Air Canada flies solely to Montreal via a regional partner. Porter, meanwhile, flies to a bunch of cities in both Canada and the US but it’s not content. It wants to make some big changes at the airport and the fight has begun to heat up.

A couple years ago, Porter went and entered into an agreement with Bombardier to buy up to 30 CS-100 jets. These don’t need a lot of runway, but they need more than the airport has today. And the airport doesn’t allow jets anyway. You can see where this is going.

Porter has been pushing hard for two things to happen. First, it wants the city to extend the runway by over 1,000 feet (half at each end). This would give enough runway for those CS-100s to not only get off the ground but fly as far as the west coast of the US. Second, it needs the airport’s “no jets” policy to be lifted. This would create a lot of opportunity for Porter since it holds the lion’s share of the slots. (Porter has 172 and Air Canada has the remaining 30.) So you wanna guess what Air Canada thinks about this?

Air Canada has come out actively opposing the allowance of jets at the airport. This, of course, makes sense. It has only a few slots at the airport, and it doesn’t have the aircraft to match the C-Series expected performance. That means that Porter would be able to fly to places like LA, Vancouver, and Florida while Air Canada couldn’t. Instead, Air Canada would be able to compete only from Toronto Pearson. Nobody thinks this will destroy Air Canada, but it would certainly put a dent in the airline’s position. Were I Air Canada, I’d oppose it to.

But at the same time, Air Canada says it wants a lot more slots at the airport so it can serve more cities. It’s not dumb. It’s the old time-honored tradition of saying you hate something but then if it happens anyway, you want a piece of the action.

This has created quite the odd couple with Air Canada and anti-airport people forming something of an alliance in trying to fight the expansion. Now, it sounds like it’s up to the city to determine what happens next. A ruling probably won’t come down for some time, but Porter has been pushing hard, saying it must make a non-refundable deposit to Bombardier this month.

This story gets even more interesting if the approval occurs. Then, will the aircraft actually meet performance guarantees and be able to operate a full load to the coasts from that still-short runway? There’s a lot of “what-ifs” going on in this story, and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

43 comments on “The Fight Over Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport Escalates With Air Canada Taking a Stand

  1. As a resident of Chicago’s Loop, I’ve taken advantage of Midway Airport’s Porter service on a number of occasions. Porter is a class act and I’d gladly fly them versus any of the US carriers. Billy Bishop is a small airport and efficient airport and the location is incredible – I’ve walked to Toronto’s financial district from the airport in only 15 minutes. I have a number of friends in Toronto and it seems that the city is incredibly supportive of the runway expansion. Air Canada fares are considerably more expensive than Porter on most routes, the policies are more restrictive, and it involves a time wasting trip to Pearson. Porter has been a refreshing change and evokes the “good old days” of travel. I understand that residents of Toronto’s islands are leery but it seems that Porter has done a good job of mitigating some of the concerns and managing the proposed environmental risks.

    1. Interesting coming from a Chicago resident. You folks destroyed your waterfront airport and built a park. We are also a waterfront city and want to preserve our beautiful beaches, marine use, parks, bird sanctuaries, and most of all, our health and the quality of life. Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is only feet away from apartment condos and a school. Jets have no place a this small space.

      1. The airport was there long before the urban in-fill of the last few years.
        Don’t like the neighbours — Don’t buy there.

        1. You do realize that’s not actually a logical retort right? By that tautology, no municipality should ever re-zone or re-design land use because “it’s always been there.” Well yeah, and now the usage of the land and the population around it have changed to the point where there are legitimate questions about continuing to allow an airport near by. Not living in Toronto and having an idea of the impact, I’ll leave it up to the people who live there to make the political decision on whether or not that property should continue to function as it has historically, or to change it entirely.

            1. And evidently so does the other commenter. So it sounds like a decision that will have to be decided politically by the parties involved about the actual issues, not just a retort that “it’s always been there, so move.” It’s pretty clear that cities have the authority for quite as while to change and design land use as they determine. This situation is no different.

  2. It’s the Southwest Effect, eh?

    Be content to live in your legislatively protected cocoon until you’ve outgrown it, and then lobby to get the cocoon opened but just enough for your own wings to spread…

    This is why Richard Daley bulldozed the runways at CGX, and why Stapleton and Austin

  3. I read something quite recently regarding Toronto wanting another airport, but I don’t think this was the airport the piece was referring to. BTW, for those who don’t know Pearson is in the city of Mississauga, pop nearly 700,000 & not in Toronto propper.

    1. We now have a via rail for quick access to downtown (about 20 minutes) from Pearson Airport, about to open.

    2. Toronto has always had plans for a second major airport East of the city but that is likely a non starter until the very long term.

  4. The ferry is actually enjoyable, and the pedestrian tunnel will open “in Spring 2015″… It will be interesting to see the performance numbers off the extended runway, when it happens… Love flying Porter!
    And I guess I have missed the “horde of rabid Leafs fans visiting the Molson brewery…” every time I have flown into or out of YYZ.

    1. Enjoy your Porter flights and use the jets from Pearson. There is no reason to destroy Toronto’s waterfront and expand this airport. Try visiting the Toronto Islands, the Beaches, the Bluffs, Tommy Thomson Park, and you will see why Torontonians want to preserve their waterfront. The lake is also our drinking water, no place for jet fuel.

      1. ?Beacher is a name that suggests a priveleged Torontonian like the NIMBY’s who bought condos near the airport and then make a part time job out of complaining about the noise from some of the quietest aircraft in the skies.

        There is no significant waterfront to be lost in extending the runway. ?In fact such an extension will make create more breakwall for the western gap and for recreational boating in the harbour.

        I enjoy seeing the planes come in and out and I kayak through the area and see no issue with this at all. I lived withing a few km of the airport and found it a fully pleasant and quiet experience.

        If you want something to complain about how about the fact that three levels of government have sold off public lands for condos, offices and pavement and in so doing wrecked a working harbour and walled off the downtown from the waterfront.

        Guess you missed that multi decade abuse of public trust.. while worrying whether your neighbourhood was “The Beach” or “The Beaches”.

  5. A few points:

    – a pedestrian tunnel is wrapping up construction and will open sometime this spring.
    – the financial district is definitely not a 15 minute walk, as one commenter suggested – it’s at least 30 minutes.
    – the city alone can’t extend the runway – it’s under the purview of Ports Toronto which is a tri-partite entity made up of the federal government, provincial government, and the city. The feds have come out supporting expansion, but the city is still doing studies. Various politicians have come out on one side or the other, but obviously nearby residents are vehemently opposed.
    – There’s a new train launching likely within the next month to whisk passengers from Union Station in the financial district to Pearson airport in 25 minutes. This is important, because, while Porter offers a free shuttle from Union to the island airport, it can take this long to get there, depending on traffic. The passenger drop off area near the airport is always clogged.

  6. Hi .. a good look at this issue .. This month the pedestrian tunnel to YTZ opens and at the same time a sorely need LRT line from Union Station in the heart of the business district to both YYZ terminals opens .. travel time 20 minutes or less .. on the cleverly named.. UP Line (Union/Pearson)

  7. The ferry loses its fun after a few trips – the tunnel can’t open soon enough. The Union-Pearson Express train opens shortly, connecting the financial district to Pearson with two stops in between. If AC has been losing short haul traffic from the downtown core to YOW/YSB etc the express train will help level that playing field (traffic is pretty horrendous in TO – 30 minutes from downtown to the airport Sunday morning perhaps… I would recommend giving yourself at least 90 minutes from downtown to the airport for an after work flight).
    I am a “Porter Support” myself, and would like to see the runway extended and jets allowed. No beef with AC – I like flying them too – but if you have biz in Toronto, YTZ is the bees knees.
    If jets stay banned, where does Porter go from there? Not much growth possibility…

  8. Air Canada is a government controlled monopoly that likes to flex its muscles and push out the smaller competitors. They did it with CP (Canadian) and also with all the other upstarts (Nordair, Air Transat, Canada 3000, etc…). Some have come back but not at the same strength. AC also doesn’t like that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar want to fly more to Canada…so they blocked each of them to 3x weekly. Where as Emirates and Etihad fly 2x daily to JFK! Insane. Only in Nov will AC fly to Dubai…hope they fail miserably.

    Now that Porter is making a dent, AC wants to squish it. Pathetic. And pathetic that the governments will allow it to happen rather than foster competition and innovation.

    The train from downtown Toronto to Pearson will likely be one of the most expensive city-to-airport journeys in the world. Canada has one of the highest taxes and makes flying out very expensive – we recently decided to drive to Washington DC and fly from there overseas rather than from Toronto. We flew on miles and saved $600 per ticket in taxes. Yes…$600 per ticket.

    Canadian aviation needs an overhaul. More competition. Less government intervention. LOWER taxes.

    1. The Island Airport is viable only because Porter/PortsToronto has stiffed the City for its fair share of property taxes, and gets use of the 215 acres of extremely valuable public land for free.

      In other words highly subsidized.

      If it paid property taxes at the same rate as everyone else, and a fair rent for the land, fares would not be competitive. Is Porter’s use of public assets for private gain OK?

      1. And we are not subsidizing Pearson/YYZ ? Or any other airport in Canada for that matter. What is your point?

    2. Studies are showing this proposal is not viable (see Golder Health Impact proposal). Destroying a waterfront and the health of thousands of inhabitants so you can save a few dollars on flights is not an overhaul but rather a greedy mess.

  9. I think they have built an underwater TUNNEL to the airport – which is supposed to open this spring. So no footbridge – but I bet they are pretty sure there are going to be more flights!

    Robert D. Lipman Summit Management Services Executive Vice President

    Phone: (512) 306 – 1084 Mobile (512) 423 – 0701

    Mailing Address: PO Box 162543, Austin, TX 78716 Courier/Street Address: 2611 Stratford Drive, Austin, TX 78746

  10. Sounds like Air Canada is as big a baby as DL/AA/UA can be when someone else is doing good. If they can’t do the same thing, then the other airline shouldn’t be able to do it at all.

    Amazing how AC/PD…Pearson/City sound like AA/WN…DFW/Love.

    1. It’s reduced to $19.00 each way if you are use a Presto card, finally becoming Toronto’s equivalent to New York’s MetroCard. So most Toronto residents will generally pay significantly less than the single-ride fare. $19 CAD still isn’t cheap, but that’s just over $15 USD, so it’s not as bad as it at first appears.

  11. I used to fly into YYZ a lot and that drive to downtown Toronto is one of the longer airport to city center drives I’ve ever taken. At the time I don’t believe the train was in operation but what matters more than the price is the schedule. Can I get through all the customs & immigration crap, catch a train and be downtown for my meeting on time? Unlucky for me most of my business in Toronto was somewhere along the 401 and I was forced to drive in traffic to/from Pearson. Time is money and going to Toronto was always very time consuming.

    My experience is Canadian airports don’t do as good of a job as their American counterparts at providing good ground transportation access for business travel. YYZ’s biggest problem is just traffic and congestion. YUL is ok for being closer to the downtown area but the expressways can get congested. YEG is out in the middle of nowhere so you’re driving through prairie to get to only the edge of the city. YVR is a long slow drive up Granville to get into the center of town. YYC isn’t terrible but the Deerfoot can get congested bad.

    Compare that to airports like DCA where I can walk off a plane into a cab and be at the white house in literally 15 mins. Or PHX where the airport could be considered an extension of downtown Phoenix. BOS literally has bridges, tunnels and ferries to take you downtown. Etc. Etc. Etc.

  12. As far as driving to Washington, DC, is concerned, just to save money, and it would mean $600.00 MINUS time wasted, car further depreciated, loads of petrol, parking, I find that sort of dubious, if not outright crazy. Legend has it most people fly to Buffalo, NY, which is almost next door. And as was said, when the Germanwings crash happened and the question of general safety came in, which is nowadays definitely very often compromised, because of relentless competitive and profit generating cost cutting, and that is a fact, we have no problems buying expensive shoes, caviar and a bottle from the Widow Cliquot, but when it cames to flying, and the fare is above 9.99, all hell brakes loose. Not to mention that large portions of airline and industry related employees barely make a livable wage these days.

    Sorry for the long winded sentence, love to practice my English as a second language, something most people are unable to do these days anyway, or consider as time wasted.


    Please no emotican, henny, how rude…

  13. “My experience is Canadian airports don’t do as good of a job as their American counterparts at providing good ground transportation access for business travel.”

    YVR does-there is Skytrain service directly from the terminal to downtown.

  14. The many times I’ve flown into YYZ I’ve always missed the many Leafs fans at the Brewery. I guess they don’t hang out on the Expressway. As mentioned already, the traffic can be terrible driving from Pearson to downtown. I usually stay at the airport Sheraton the night before I depart since traffic can be so bad in the AM.

  15. If Porter cannot expand as desired, the residents of Waterloo Region would gladly welcome them to YKF. We are just about 30 miles off the end of the main runway of Pearson, and we HATE driving into the city! Porter could run a shuttle here from the island and land their jets all day long… C’mon Porter -are you reading this?

    1. Nonsense. Porter’s only real advantage is that they are very close to downtown. If they were at Pearson they’d lose their advantage and all the public enthusiasm for the unspeakable cabin noise, the all-economy cabin, the useless frequent flier program, their exile from the real world of airline alliances, would die pretty quick. If it then took an extra thirty-nine minutes “from the end of the Pearson runway” just to get to the terminal at YKF to board a Porter turboprop, well… I’d predict their loads would decline by roughly, oh approximately…

      … 99%.

  16. “I read something quite recently regarding Toronto wanting another airport, but I don’t think this was the airport the piece was referring to.”

    Yeah, there’s also the forty odd year project to build a new international facility east of the city proper, in Pickering. It’s been on again off again, is hated by the locals for some good and some not so good reasons and makes almost everyone nervous about the possibility of becoming Mirabel in Toronto. The MTO hasn’t been saying much, but officially the project is still on, and I rather suspect a serious effort to build it will appear at some point; that said no major party has any political reason to back the thing so it may well stay hidden for some time to come.

    “Air Canada is a government controlled monopoly that likes to flex its muscles and push out the smaller competitors.”

    Air Canada has been fully private since 1989, which is more than ten years before they bought Canadian.

    That said, yeah, the government definitely does have an unfortunate tendency to favor them, though since the nonsense with WestJet in the early days it’s been much more apparent in things like the UAE/Emirates debacle. In this case though I don’t think it matter at all. Realistically of the two airlines Porter and Bob Deluce are probably more connected to the current government, and especially the current Toronto mayor, than Air Canada.

  17. The problems with expansion are numerous:
    • greater congestion on city side (that neither Porter nor the Island airport consider they should cover)
    • inhibition on the City’s abilities to develop waterfront lands because the YTZ airport regulatory body (Transport Canada) could insist on zoning restrictions (and even more so with incoming regulations under TP312 5th edition)
    • the YTZ airport’s refusal to accept passenger and slot caps that the City requires (in fact, the airport wants to more than double passenger load)
    • uncompetitive situation: Porter Airlines controls 85% of slots at the airport and has guarantees of that percentage continuing if slots are increased (goes from 5-year total monopoly to de facto monopoly)
    • adequate airport infrastructure at YYZ for expansion a long way into the future
    • $500M public dollars spent on rail link to YYZ
    • the usual airport-related problems: noise, pollution, but in this case side by side with major parklands and residential areas
    • questionable safety infrastructure: emergency vehicle access to airport inadequate, many tall buildings nearby (very nearby), airport already has numerous operational exemptions to squeeze it into a small space (lacking precision instrumented approaches, lacking approach lighting, very short runways, waterfowl bird sstrike risks, fog, etc.)
    ==> this is an airport that serves a niche market (business to Toronto downtown) but expansion as proposed turns it into a very different beast (vacation fliers on jet airlines) not appropriate to location
    ==> kudos to Porter for growing its business as it has (albeit with substantial public support), but if they truly want to fly jets, they should set up that part of their operation elsewhere (Pearson or Hamilton airports)
    ==> if the business travellers using Billy Bishop Airport REALLY want the 10 minutes of convenience this airport offers (as long as it doesn’t expand and clog) then they should pay a premium and that would help cap growth (which in any case has been flat for three years anyway)

  18. I trust everyone recalls that the majority of everything south of Front St was dumped there. I’m sure in this day and age a balanced approach to land expansion can be reached, whether through stilts or filling.

    1. Thank you….for the insight of history…
      There was the old ball park with professional ball….and that was about it…. down there.

  19. When I lived in Detroit, I used the Windsor-Billy Bishop flight a few times. Absolutely loved it! Assuming tunnel traffic wasn’t bad, so much quicker, cheaper and more convenient than DTW. That being said, if I lived in Toronto and did not directly benefit from airport, I’d probably not be a fan at all.

  20. The real story here is that Porter has entered brand adolescence.
    Their planes are getting older (= higher maintenance costs), their crews have more seniority (= union agitation and higher cost employees) and all of their infrastructure is ageing, requiring more investment just to stand still… let alone the investment required to remain the innovative stylish little upstart airline that Toronto’s downtown denizens and Tyler Brule know and love.
    They also fly Q400s and no matter what anyone says, that plane does NOT have the comfort of even a Canadair CRJ (which isn’t setting the comfort bar very high).
    Oh… and a few attempts at an IPO have failed or fizzled out.
    What’s all this add up to? An airline that knows the window on selling (and recouping their investment) is shutting very, very, soon. They’re not an attractive target to anyone in their current shape – so they need some “oomph”. Jets give them that oomph.
    It’ll be interesting to see if Porter exists 2 years from now with or without jets:
    With jets: they become an attractive target for AC / WJ or a US carrier and the Porter brand disappears.
    Without jets: they sell at firesale prices to AC / WJ or just go bankrupt.
    Either way, I doubt that Porter is a sustainable entity in the long run.

  21. Maybe they’ll end up splitting the baby – let Porter fly jets out of YTZ but but a range limit on how far they can fly them like at DCA or LGA.

  22. The airport will always be a bone of contention as the noise impact wealthy lakefront communities, a very vocal Island community, and a smattering of low income. There will be always be a no change attitude. the community will only be happy is the airport is gone, no middle ground at all.

    but lost in the conversation is that the exclusion zone and runway extentions are needed for safety reasons whether jets are permitted or not. and the CSeries planes are quieter dB wise and with a less invasive rumble than thud thud of props.

    Air Canada has no intention of long term sustained service at YTZ, they drove City Express out of business at the airport years ago and then left the island airport with no service for years. AC is trying to make Porter unviable, it’s a dirty obvious play.

  23. After starting with a big promotional push and did not get anywhere with public opinions and political buy-ins, PD is turning more low key with achieving its plans. For the time being, they started codesharing with B6 at BOS to feed passengers to other cities not operable by the Q400. However, this arrangement can add significant travel time and is not a long term decision.

    PD is also trying to drive AC out of YTZ by arranging for a sale-lease on the terminal. Although it may be stuck with the Bombardier order soon, PD is lucked out with C-series delays.

    Now that there is a new city council, hopefully they will get it together to make a decision. Environmental assessment has been planned by PortsToronto with public consultation started this week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier