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3: Toronto’s Island Airport Lands: History and new possibilities

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Bill Freeman and Brian Iler

Porter Airlines, April 18, 2016
Porter Airlines, April 18, 2016 (Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

Porter Airlines

In retrospect it now is clear that the reason the Toronto Port Authority continued with their airport expansion plans was because Robert Deluce persuaded the Port Authority that he could succeed with a new business, Porter Airlines, which would make the Island Airport their hub and establish a passenger service flying to various destinations in eastern North America.

The Port Authority became committed to Porter’s success, giving it exclusive rights to operate a passenger service at the Airport, for its first five years, and other perks. On February 2, 2006 Deluce formally announced Porter had raised $125 million from OMERS and other investors and would fly Bombardier Q400 turbo prop aircraft out the Island Airport.

Porter faced problems. The Q400 is a much larger plane than the Dash 8 and did not have STOL capabilities. This was a violation of the Tripartite Agreement. Conveniently, Transport Canada ruled that the Q400 is a derivative of a Dash 8, and therefore, did not violate the Tripartite Agreement. Another problem was the runways at the Island were too short for a plane the size of the Q400. Porter removed some of the seats from their planes to lessen the weight.

In October 2006 Porter began airline service out of the island. Initially they flew to Montreal, Ottawa and Newark. Then the company expanded their service to other destinations. (About this time the Port Authority renamed the Island Airport, Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. We choose to use its original name: Toronto Island Airport.)

Toronto Island Airport land side terminal
Toronto Island Airport land side terminal

Problems for citizens remained and some grew worse. Noise was one of the most persistent problems. Air pollution and concerns about climate change were increasingly important. Many pointed out the activity at the airport threatened wildlife, and others protested traffic congestion and safety. For years CommunityAIR and other citizens complained but got nowhere.

Porter’s ad campaign and service gave the appearance of a sophisticated, successful company run by Robert Deluce, an experienced airline executive, who was not afraid of political confrontation or meeting the public but behind this façade Porter faced problems.

The first indication of financial troubles was when Porter attempted an IPO in April 2010. It revealed significant company financial losses. Analysts concluded there were difficulties with the financial projections and the IPO was withdrawn.

Porter grew dramatically in the first six years with a growth of passengers and the number of destinations. Then in 2012 the number of passengers plateaued and there has been little growth since that time.

The TPA, or Ports Toronto as it now calls itself, was in better financial shape. It received $50 million from a law suit against the city that was settled in 2002. Later they received $95 million from the sale of its property at 30 Bay Street. They also receive fees from each passenger using the airport. The TPA used some of this money to make airport improvements and built a pedestrian tunnel under the Western Gap.

In April 2013 Porter released a bombshell. Robert Deluce announced the company wanted to fly jets out of the Island Airport. This led to yet another intense political controversy in the city.

Jets at the Island Airport

Jets at the Island Airport were prohibited by the terms of the Tripartite Agreement. In order to allow them to operate all three signatories had to agree. The signatories were the Toronto Port Authority (The TPA changed its name to Ports Toronto in January 2015), the City of Toronto and the Canadian Government.

Immediately after the Porter announcement community members met. There was unanimous opposition to the jet proposal. At that meeting a new organization was formed called NoJetsTO. The leader chosen was Anshul Kapoor, a gifted communicator and young businessman who lived on the Waterfront.

NoJetsTO kayak protest
NoJetsTO kayak protest

Immediately a new set of activists were mobilized and formed NoJetsTO. Some had been involved in other campaigns against the airport, others lived along the Waterfront, but many were new people from across the city who were alarmed of the proposal for jets on the Waterfront and in the downtown core of the city. The leaders of the earlier organization, CommunityAIR, that opposed the bridge and airport expansion, were involved but did not play a leadership role in NoJetsTO because CAIR was strongly identified with the goal of closing the Airport.

NoJetsTO focused entirely on the issue of jets. Kapoor and others said that they were not opposed to the Island Airport, but they were concerned about the quality of life of the people living in the city and opposed Porter’s jet proposal. Again, the issues of noise, pollution, safety and increased traffic were prominent.

The biggest issue facing the Porter proposal was that the runways would have to be lengthened to accommodate the jets. This meant there would be extensive filling of Toronto Harbour which would have an impact on recreation, particularly sailing. The cost of all this was another factor but no one could provide an accurate estimate.

The Toronto Port Authority was responsible for airport improvements and that meant the TPA would pay the costs of lake filling and the construction of the runways. The TPA was an independent federal government agency. That meant that ultimately the federal government would feel compelled to pay the costs. Therefore, like so many times in the past, the public was ultimately responsible.

Widespread opposition to the jet proposal was built over time – the more time went by, the stronger the opposition to jets became. City Council was the focus, as its decision‑making is open and transparent, even though there was no assurance that a majority of Councillors would join the opposition. Suburban councillors had little identity with the waterfront, and yet they had a vote on the issue.

Rob Ford was Toronto mayor at the time. He had received a $2,500 campaign contribution from Robert Deluce, and other members of the Deluce family contributed $5,000 to his campaign. Ford said he was supportive of the jet proposal.

City staff and Councillors agreed there was a need to ensure the issue was carefully studied, the full costs were determined and that the community was wholly engaged in a comprehensive consultation. This took time and resulted in many months of delay.

As it happened, a federal election was called in 2015. Adam Vaughan, running for the Liberals as the Member of Parliament for the constituency that included the airport, was strongly opposed. He spoke out against the jet proposal, and committed his party to refuse jets if it took power in the 2015 election.

Finally in November 2015, two and a half years after Porter’s request to Council, the newly elected government of Justin Trudeau announced they would not support jets at the Island Airport. The Porter jet proposal was dead in the water.


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