Let’s Debate Billy’s Fate

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.

runways at Billy Bishop Airport

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The cost to transform BBA into various alternative uses.
  4. 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.

4 Responses to “Let’s Debate Billy’s Fate”

  1. Ulla Colgrass Avatar

    Thanks for a clear and fair review of the BBA situation. The big difference between BBA’s “charm offensive” and civic groups in opposition is Nieuport’s deep pockets. As a member of Waterfront for All, I support the abundant facts that prove this airport is a shaky financial operation, and its benefits to urban Toronto are largely hypothetical. And don’t forget that the BBA got its 50-year tripartite agreement in a much smaller city of Toronto in 1983. We have grown up. The Waterfront is no longer a grim strip of industrial lands, but a gleaming row of high-rises. The uses and profits gained today from this valuable land far outshine the struggling airport’s importance.

  2. William J. Jackson Avatar
    William J. Jackson

    I note that electrically powered airplanes have been under active development for over 8 years and increasing battery power densities will increase range/capacity by 2033. They are just capable of being small load feeder(cargo and passenger) in the 15-20 passenger range. Advances in Sodium chemistry might replace Lithium – safer, but Lithium’s power density advantage will endure.
    Battery power is significantly cheaper that jet/turbine/piston power, and engine complexity is under 5% of fossil fueled craft – leading to large savings in that area. Some estimate a 75% reduction in energy costs? Control surfaces/landing gear will be similar in maintenance cost. Radio/Radar/navigation etc are already light and are similar and current maintenance costs for those will also be flat, but as solid state machines they self check and maintenance shops have swappable slide-in replacements at hand.
    Electric planes are a lot quieter – propeller noise being present at 10-15 Db less than piston. Electric turbines are under development and will also be quieter and will be used as e-turbo props. Some research e-jets have been tested – not sure how quiet they will be?

    As for the RESA – it may be more cost effective to drive piles into the lake bed shale and construct the RESA upon those piles, using stainless steel rebar(adds 3-4% to cost – that should have been done for city bridges/Gardiner etc). It would take an engineering study on how will loose fill(even when compacted) endure lake front erosion/settling over many years.

  3. Richard Temporale Avatar
    Richard Temporale

    I like your casual way of presenting the bare requirements. I also note you write at about a grade 12 level Something I always insisted on in my reports to the legislature and the general public.
    I think your suggested alternative best use for land in question won’t fly for two reasons. Firstly, Toronto already has the most visited park in Canada on the island and it generates the most revenue of any park in Canada (I’ve been told this but haven’t researched it). Despite this they under funded it every year, it’s potential best use doesn’t even dawn on the department that runs it and it’s management is poor at best. I can speak with some authority on this because I have lived there for close to 50 years.
    With the significant redevelopment occurring on the waterfront, the need for more recreational amenities will likely be outweighed by the potential lure of the perpetual growing stream of revenue generated by assessment without the need to manage it through increases in the total number of civic FTEs. This leads me to my second reason it won’t or shouldn’t fly. I’m sure there are some pretty influential developers working on all three levels of government on the merits of an ultra luxury commercial and residential plan for this space. It’s not hard to vision its appeal as a crime free naturally gated community with spectacular views of both the city and the lake.

  4. Ed Avatar

    I have never needed to use BBA. Having said that I am in favour of keeping, and indeed expanding the airport. I am old enough to remember when there was NOTHING within a mile or more. Then a whole bunch of condos were built and a lot of people moved into the area.
    Some years ago there was a movement to have the airport shut down because of the NOISE. Hey, you guys KNEW there was an airport at your doorstep when you bought the condo.
    Now these people feel ENTITLED to have recreational facilites in THEIR neighbourhood (at the cost of a facility that serves ALL of Toronto, not just these newbies.)
    How about rescuing Ontario Place, a perfectly decent recreational facility, and leaving the airport alone?

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