As Samuel Johnson opined, deadlines “concentrate the mind wonderfully.” Not only does Billy Bishop Airport’s (BBA) lease expire in 2033, but – more urgently – the airport must meet a Transport Canada requirement to have in place runway end safety areas by 2027. RESA’s, as the term suggests, are flat obstacle-free zones at the end of runways to protect aircraft that either under- or over-shoot the runway. As BBA is built on the waterfront, the RESA’s would require landfill into the harbour in several places and likely cost $150 million.
Build Baby Build
There are two major proponents of building the RESAs and maintaining BBA. Ports Toronto, a federal government agency, owns part of the airport land and the City owns the rest, which means that Ports Toronto wants to renew its lease on the city-owned portion. Nieuport Aviation, a privately held company, owns the terminal at BBA. (Historical note: Billy Bishop flew French-built Nieuport fighter aircraft in World War I.) The lease to Nieuport is Ports Toronto’s major source of revenue. Nieuport paid $700 million to buy the terminal from Porter Airlines and would lose its investment if the airport closed. Nieuport has a well-connected board of directors, but it is not apparent from their backgrounds which organizations or individuals have invested in it.
Nieuport has begun an advertising campaign and its CEO Neil Pakey has launched a “charm offensive” – I love that oxymoron – with high-profile feel-good appearances, such as introducing Olivia Chow when she recently spoke at the Empire Club and going on CP24 to support the Daily Harvest Food Bank.
Porter Airlines has now split its operations between BBA and Pearson Airport, so it can adjust to an environment which doesn’t include BBA, as can Air Canada, BBA’s other user.
BBA’s key intellectual advocate is Richard Florida, whose report and subsequent op-ed I critiqued in a recent post. In my view, the report is more advocacy than analysis, and rests on the flawed notion of economic impact. As an emeritus professor, I rarely visit the Rotman School, so I don’t pass Florida in the hall. But he has signed on to my X feed, so he will be seeing this post.
For the People
The opponents of maintaining BBA are two citizens’ groups, Parks not Planes, and Waterfront for All. To reinterpret Doug Ford’s 2018 election slogan, they argue that closing BBA would provide enhanced recreational opportunities for the people, rather than more convenient travel for the elite. Recently, Ed Hore, Chair of Waterfront for All, published a policy paper entitled “Does Toronto Need Two Airports?” Hore doesn’t answer the question, but rather lays out a set of alternatives, and poses a thorough set of probing questions the City of Toronto should answer before it decides whether to support BBA or to force it to close.
The Analysis we Need
This brings us to the City of Toronto. City staff are preparing a report about BBA to be sent to the Executive Committee of City Council in either December or January.
To decide, there are four pieces of analysis the City needs and one it doesn’t. The four necessary pieces of analysis are:
- The benefits to users of BBA in terms of reduced travel time and increased amenity relative to Pearson. That fewer travellers are using BBA now than before the pandemic suggests that this benefit isn’t growing.
- The environmental disamenity of BBA in terms of noise and air pollution compared to the increased disamenity at Pearson if flights now at BBA were shifted there. Environmental costs are not linear, so the value of removing them entirely from the waterfront would outweigh the increased costs of moving flights to Pearson.
- The cost to transform BBA into various alternative uses.
- The value to users of the alternative uses of the BBA site, some of which, such as public parks, would be provided free of charge.
Finally, economic impact analysis is unnecessary because if operations move from BBA to Pearson the loss of economic impact at BBA is cancelled out by the increased economic impact at Pearson.
My own position depends on embracing two discordant ideas. First, I believe that the City should do a thorough analysis of the impact of moving air traffic from BBA to Pearson and converting the BBA site to the best alternative use, which I think would be recreational, broadly defined. Second, based on my experience as a researcher on the economics of aviation, I think the results of the study will show that closing BBA is the better way. It is now time to send in the wonks.