Let’s make this an election issue No. 1 – A Strategic Airports Plan

Mirabel's opening-day open house - The Future Was Then

I’ll start with the tl/dr (too long, didn’t read). If I were elected Mayor, I’d propose the following:

A) Rationalize our three airport system by returning Mirabel to its originally intended hub/gateway role by re-routing all international flights to Mirabel away from Trudeau International.

B) Finance the completion of Highways 13, 19 and 50 in addition to the high-speed rail link intended to connect the airport with Central Station. I would further propose a partnership with the provincial & federal governments to extend Highway 50 to Gatineau/Ottawa in the West and through to Berthierville (connecting to Highway 40 and then onto Québec City) in the East, further intersecting with Highway 25.

C) Extend Métro service to both Trudeau and St-Hubert airports (and, by extension, get around the current AMT/ADM squabble re: commuter train access at Trudeau).

D) Re-organize Trudeau into a domestic/regional airport with a stronger emphasis on cargo flights (since Trudeau is better served by existing highways and is adjacent to the city’s principle rail yard) in addition to taking on some of St-Hubert’s general aviation load. St-Hubert would be given a new role as a ‘city-link’ STOLport, similar to Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport.

E) Build the once-proposed Aerospace University (I’d make it a joint venture between an English and French university) at Trudeau.

If the citizens were to authorize the completion of these projects, Montréal would doubtless re-take the position as Canada’s primary gateway, and in time would likely win a considerable amount of business in air travel back to the city and metropolitan region. It would also solidify our position as an aviation leader, both nationally and internationally.

Mirabel's vacant main concourse - not the work of the author.

Here’s a little trivia about Montréal’s relationship with civil aviation;

1. As far as the laws and governance of international civil aviation is concerned, Montréal is the world capital, featuring not only the International Air Transport Association (IATA, headquartered at the Tour de la Bourse) but the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO – a UN body) as well. These two organizations form the utmost authority regarding civil aviation in the entire world, and as you can imagine, their consolidated political power is exceptional to say the very least.

2. Montréal boasts a total of three airports, two of which are ‘international airports’ – meaning they are designed to accommodate the largest (and longest-range) aircraft and the largest passenger or cargo loads. The third, St-Hubert Airport, is the busiest general-aviation airport in all of Canada. It is also partially a military base and the home of the Canadian Space Agency.

3. Montréal’s Mirabel International Airport was once Canada’s international hub (for the latter part of the 1970s until the late 1980s), meaning the the vast majority of international flights were departing and arriving at Mirabel (and thus, Mirabel was Canada’s gateway to the world and most immigrants/refugees during that era passed through there). When the land was originally purchased, it was several times larger than the entire area of Manhattan Island. It is still amongst the world’s largest airports in terms of total surface area, as the airport was supposed to be expanded over twenty years into a massive facility handling 50 million people per year. Even though it is no longer used, Mirabel is still exceptionally modern, still fully functional, and still capable of massive expansion.

4. Montréal is Canada’s aviation industry capital. Bombardier, arguably the world’s third largest civil aircraft manufacturer, is based here and has developed extensive manufacturing and maintenance facilities. Pratt & Whitney Canada, one of the world’s largest engine manufacturers is also located in the Montréal region, as is Bell Helicopter. Add to the list CAE, the world’s premier designer and manufacturer of flight simulators, and the myriad other enterprises and industries building aircraft components, electronics, landing gear etc.

There’s a reason why ICAO and IATA are based here.

What was planned and what was completed - the full project was designed to handle 50 million people per year.

But as we all know, our failures with regards to aviation are still quite significant, and there’s a considerable amount of room for improvement. And one of the principle causes of our failures with regards to local air travel is our over-dependence on federal and provincial assistance for large-scale infrastructure projects. There must be centralized planning emanating from City Hall. Furthermore, the City needs to consider financing the missing pieces of our only partially completed strategic airports plan.

To begin with, the City must begin planning for a return to Mirabel Airport. It is unthinkable that we should allow Mirabel to be destroyed or otherwise converted away from being an international airport of the highest calibre. Let us say that it has been held in storage; we require Mirabel because the other two airports in our system are presently over-capacity while Mirabel sits an empty shell of its former self. Rationalizing the airports and instituting a more efficient division of labour goes hand-in-hand with ensuring the airports are far better connected to our public-transit system in addition to the regional highway infrastructure.

Trudeau is currently at capacity and has no hope of being expanded beyond its current capacity of 20 million passengers per year (ironically, what Mirabel was initially designed to handle). However, it can’t reach that volume without a major improvement to the local highway, train and subway systems – all the more reason to shift some of that bulk back to Mirabel and expand highways and trains into the undeveloped portions of the metropolitan area, as opposed to trying to build through the already high-density of the Island. Limiting Trudeau to domestic/regional flights will be far more in-line with the ADM’s desire that Trudeau be a “9-5” airport, while the scarcely populated region around Mirabel could operate twenty-four hours per day. Furthermore, it is ultimately negligent for a city to route high-capacity jumbo-jets over densely populated urban areas.

Pretty self-explanatory - why not finish the project?

In a similar vein, the over-capacity St-Hubert airport should transfer some of its general-aviation operations to Trudeau, which may be under-capacity after international flights are re-routed. STOL (short take-off & landing) aircraft could make excellent use of St-Hubert for ‘city-link’ business flights, like those offered by Porter Airlines. Extending the Métro as far as St-Hubert would allow those passengers a direct link right into the heart of the City, an invaluable asset (and far more efficient than waiting for the ferry as is the case in Toronto.

My last note is this. After reading this article, consider its proposals and ask yourself “can we afford not to do this, can we afford the status quo?”

I certainly don’t believe we can pass up the opportunity to re-invigorate our airports system and associated aerospace industry. A massive investment in air transport for this city, in addition to the secondary improvements to local traffic and transit infrastructure which would also be required would propel Montréal into a new position as a new national gateway. We’d be able to compete with Toronto directly, and could potentially solidify our position by reducing airport fees and increasing the ease by which Montréalers can travel. By extending highways from Mirabel to Montréal, Ottawa and Québec City, Mirabel could potentially offer its services to more than 6 million people living in the region.

Mirabel's deserted entrance - not the work of the author.

And we’d finally reverse a great injustice. Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney deeded land secured by the Trudeau Administration for the construction of Mirabel back to the original owners as they felt threatened by Mirabel’s potential power. Under the guise of correcting what was in their minds a historical injustice, these two leaders have sought to shift the focus away from Montréal. If we don’t act quickly, we may lose Mirabel in its entirety. The proposals for what to do with it have included everything from outright demolition to conversion into some kind of water themed bio-diversity amusement park.

In my eyes, that would be the greatest injustice to this once proud city.

6 thoughts on “Let’s make this an election issue No. 1 – A Strategic Airports Plan”

  1. The overestimation part is problematic. If the Fed had done a better job minimizing the economic impact of the PQ election in 1976, then I doubt Toronto would have fully taken over as the major gateway into Canada. And let’s keep in mind that though Toronto overtook Montreal as biggest city in Canada in the early 1980s, Mirabel maintained itself as a principle int’l gateway for some time after that.

    The biggest problem for me is that the city isn’t pushing its own agenda based on its own needs, and it isn’t currently able to get around the bickering between other organizations. The AMT and ADM shouldn’t be arguing between each other, the City should be very precise in what it wants and able to independently ensure the completion of major projects. But we have this terrible laissez-faire attitude where we wait for other bodies to figure out solutions that suit their needs rather than the city.

    If the City were more responsible for its own affairs, we’d be transitioning away from Trudeau simply because its location prevents additional growth and poses a plethora of problems for people living around the airport. It causes inordinate traffic jams, noise pollution etc and can’t be expanded. But if the City financed a transition to Mirabel, say by building the rail link and completing the highway, we could expand as much as we wanted to, wouldn’t have to worry about planes crashing into dense residential areas etc. If we wanted to become Canada’s gateway, we’d cut our airport taxes down to next-to-nothing and get by based on volume alone. What if Montreal made Mirabel the cheapest place to land in Canada, in Eastern North America? I don’t think we’d have a hard time eventually getting to that 50 million figure.

    And your last point is fundamentally my point as well – it takes too long to do anything these days because no one takes direct responsibility. Mayor Drapeau oversaw the construction of 26 new, independently designed Metro stations in four years, not to mention three lines and an underwater tunnel to boot. It shames me that we’ve become so corrupt and greedy here in Montreal that we can’t build more than three in over a decade now. We’ve seriously lost our way.

  2. I’m skeptical. One reason Mirabel failed was a huge overestimation of the volume of international traffic that would have Montreal as its destination, or want to use Montreal as transit point to other cities. The reality is that in Eastern Canada the high transatlantic volume is to/from Toronto, period. (Let’s not talk about how empty the Quebec city “international” airport is.)

    Another unmentioned problem is the vaunted short distances to the gate at Mirabel do not take into account 21st century security concerns, which would presumably require a major redesign.

    Anyway, if transportation agencies can’t implement a reasonable train plan to Dorval, and won’t even finish the road construction there for how many years now?, talking about a usable Mirabel in our lifetimes (well, at least mine!) is a fantasy.

  3. Hi –

    I agree, trains are a must. But, there is no single ideal system. Ergo, while a high-speed train network throughout all of Canada is useful for one budget along one time-span, improving air transport is valuable to another budget on a different time-span. In the specific case of Toronto-Montréal, I’d prefer to have the choice to pick between a Porter business flight, an Air Canada regularly scheduled high-capacity flight, an express train, a “milk-run” train and the bus. There have to be multiple options for the consumer and to stimulate competition. I want Air Canada competing with VIA in some areas and cooperating with them in others – they’ve both received so much federal financing they’re effectively both crown corporations, and so should serve all of the People, all of the time. But let’s move away from Canada’s main-street – what about a Montréal-Winnipeg high-speed rail link that competes with regularly scheduled West Jet 737-800 flights from Trudeau? Prices should be regulated by the government to ensure that all budgets can be met and Canadians have a plethora of options at their disposal. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we can design a better integrated national system between separate private and crown corporations either. Consider that Europeans have access to cheap flights and relatively cheap train tickets, but they still use buses and cars too. They have options and it keeps prices low.

    I would say that if we want to become a major gateway/hub, as was once intended, we will certainly need to distribute services across three airports for the time being, though I’d argue in favour of an eventual total elimination of Trudeau as a passenger airport once Mirabel’s five other terminals are completed. That being said, it wouldn’t be possible to eliminate Trudeau and St-Hubert is 50 million people are passing through Montréal, and connecting to myriad points beyond. In time I would argue in favour of high-speed trains linking the airports to one another in addition to having them already connected to the downtown, so as to provide an exceptionally integrated gateway/hub.

    As to the highways, a necessary evil. All three airports currently have industrial operations. All three ship and receive bulk cargo and heavy equipment. All three need to be able to access potential passengers living in small towns inasmuch as big cities. The point is that highways will always be a part of the transportation infrastructure because cars, buses and trucks are still exceptionally valuable transportation tools. But, though it is government’s responsibility to ensure we transition away from combustion engines using non-renewable fuel sources to cleaner, sustainable vehicular power systems on a more general level, the need for highways won’t change for accessing rural areas and moving bulk cargo and heavy machinery.

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. Hi!

    Thanks for the comment.

    I completely agree – without the necessary improvements to public transit, including completing the highways and building an express train link, Mirabel won’t be much of an option.

    As to hating Mirabel, well, yes, I suppose a lot of that had to do with the inconveniences of getting there. As to the design of the airport, its connections, facilities etc – what’s to hate? It’s actually one of the finest airport designs of all time. Exceptionally brilliant design in fact – from the furthest reaches of the airport parking lot to the gate, an individual would walk no more than 200m; can’t say the same about Trudeau. As to liking it, well, given the state of air travel these days, there’s not much to like in the first place. People need to travel, and a city such as our own could use another fully operational airport to handle an increasing load. Remember, it is in our best interest as citizens to try and encourage our local government to create a major traffic hub/gateway here. It’s good for business in a general sense to try and increase the total number of people coming and going from Montréal. If it is as simple as ADM re-routing international flights to Mirabel, like it or not people will use it. The goal of the City is to make it as accessible as possible.

    As to your last point I’m not in much of a position to do any of those things, and would be irresponsible for me to include figures I’m not certain of. That being said, I can say the following.

    If it were up to me, the city would invest a small proportion of the collective tax revenue into a trust of sorts which in turn would be used to finance various development and maintenance projects for our airports on a long-term basis. Each year that same small percentage would be added to the pot, properly and soundly invested in medium-growth, low-risk investments. This would provide the City with an independent source of long-range planning capital.

    Aside from this, the City would likely try to increase funding for airport development, possibly via increasing the amount in transfer payments to ADM. This could be done either by raising taxation generally over a short-term period (ie- five to ten years) specifically fort he airports, or, by re-directing funding from other areas towards the airport and its associated infrastructure projects. If this latter option is pursued, it may not come at the expense of other areas, as we may be able to convince the provincial and/or federal governments to assist with the endeavour, either directly or indirectly. At the end of the day this would require a team of excellent, expert lobbyists – but hey that’s politics. I think both could be convinced of the merit of this project.

    If not, well, we need to turn to the private sector for additional assistance – and in truth I believe that the reality would require City Hall going after all potential sources of funding simultaneously. The point is that we need a Mayor who will make this a priority and seek to accomplish as much of his or her goals as possible in their four-year term. The near-chronic lack of strategic planning on the part of our politicians is largely a result of the potential for losing the next election. Ergo, we elect people with no vision who always seem to stay above water by doing the absolute bear-minimum.

    I would frame the debate on waste and loss: can we afford to let a perfectly good international airport go to waste when this same airport is our only option for long-term airport growth and development? How many white elephants can we afford to have lying around before the morale of the people is gone and Montréal starts heading down the road to becoming a Detroit?

    We must avenge our previous failures by turning them into successes.

  5. There’s a reason people hated using Mirabel. It took forever to get there, even when there was no traffic. Until the transit systems are in place no one’s going to use it, no one’s going to like it.

    You haven’t mentioned a single dollar figure, business case or a timeline for any of this to happen.

  6. Through reading your post, i couldn’t help by feeling like a huge factor has been left out… mostly about how short haul traffic could very easily be replaced by high-speed train. This could end up being a lot cheaper than all the highway expansions proposed above. It would also be able to help reduce a lot of the traffic through Trudeau, as it could reduce the number of trips to Toronto leaving from Trudeau. It would also most probably pass through Trudeau as well, also helping to solve the issue regarding accessibility.

    Bombardier is also a manufacturer of trains, and so it could also very easily contribute to Montreal’s economy. Why not have a high speed train from Quebec City to Windsor with very well serviced stations to both Montreal and Toronto’s airports? A cooperative VIA rail and Air Canada could then market tickets that include check-in at rail terminals as well as bag checkout. This way, a passenger flying from HK to Montreal can land in Toronto, and transfer to the highspeed train (could possibly leave more than hourly), arrive in downtown Montreal just 2 hours later and pick up their bag at the Via Rail station. Same for someone wishing fly from Paris to Toronto (through Montreal).

    I think what is truly missing is a well-integrated and sustainable long and short haul transportation plan.

    I also think that reviving Mirabel and shifting short haul flights to St. Hubert while keeping domestic travel at Trudeau is inefficient and doesn’t incorporate an integrated sustainable approach to regional or national transportation. It would also take up a lot of resources that could address many more pressing issues in transportation.

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