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

Bill Freeman and Brian Iler

Porter after 2015

For a time after the cancellation of the Porter jet proposal, nothing much seemed to happen. Porter continued flying out of the Island, the noise and pollution continued and citizen groups agitated for change. However, a number of things were going on below the radar that affected Porter’s operations.

In June 2015, the same year the federal government cancelled the Porter jet proposal, the Union-Pearson Express rail link began operating. UP Express travels between the downtown and the airport in 25 minutes, departing every 15-30 minutes, 7 days a week. This made travel between the downtown and Pearson efficient, fast and inexpensive.

The opposition to the Island Airport changed and a new group with new membership emerged, calling themselves Parks not Planes (PnP). Some of the leadership from CommunityAIR remained involved but others from Bathurst Quay, Toronto Island and York Quay have been important leaders. The objective of PnP is to close the Island Airport and transform the land into a magnificent urban park open to all Torontonians.

In 2015 a company called Nieuport Aviation bought the terminal Porter had built for $50M at the Island for more than $700 million. In 2018 Porter notified Nieuport it was losing money, and needed to reduce its flights from the airport. That would reduce the income of Nieuport because Porter operated 85% of the flights. This was contrary to the contract between the two companies and Nieuport refused to allow Porter to reduce its flights.

Toronto Island Airport terminal from the Western Gap
Toronto Island Airport terminal

This dispute became more serious with the onset of COVID 19. When the pandemic struck, Porter shut down its flights completely from March 20, 2020 to September 8, 2021. They were the only Canadian airline that completely shut down their operations. This meant the Island Airport was essentially closed and Nieuport had no income. Nieuport launched litigation against Porter, claiming they were required to continue paying rent according to their contract.

There is no need to go into the complexities of the litigation, but the documents presented in the case are very interesting. Robert Deluce, President of Porter, stated in letters to Nieuport that Porter lost $18,910,000 in 2017, projected a $40 million loss in 2018 and $30 million loss in 2019. All three of these years were prior to the shutdown caused by COVID. He also said that the company’s business was affected by UP Express.

Deluce went on to say in his letter that the cost of Porter operating out of the Island Airport is 173%, or $50.9 million dollars per year more expensive in 2018 than what an identical operation at Pearson would cost. He claimed this would grow to $68.6 million per year by 2022.

In court Porter claimed the rent to Nieuport, and the landing fees paid to the Ports Toronto, made the Island Airport three or four times more expensive than the cost of operating out of Pearson.

Nieuport countered all these claims by pointing out Porter had received $135 million in a loan from the federal government to defer the losses resulting from the epidemic and could use that money to pay the terminal rent that was owing. Porter lost the case and was ordered to pay Nieuport $131 million.

This information is very significant. Porter is a private company and is not required to publish yearly financials. It had been assumed that the company was in some difficulty because it had little growth since 2012, but they were still making a profit. Now we know that Porter has consistently lost money from the time they started operations to today. No company can survive financial losses like that for long.

The admission that it is now more expensive to operate out of the Island Airport than Pearson is also important. Ports Toronto is trying to attract more airlines to the Island. If fees are more expensive at the Island, and if jets are not allowed, then they will never attract new airlines.

Meanwhile Porter was moving ahead with plans for jet service using Pearson as their hub airport. On July 12, 2021, they announced that they would purchase 30 Embraer jets with purchase rights for an additional 50 aircraft. On February 1, 2023 they celebrated their first jet flights out of Pearson to Ottawa and Montreal, and said that they plan to establish jet service to major centres in Eastern Canada, the west coast, southern U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.

Parks not Planes
It now appears that it will only be a matter of time before the Island Airport must close. These are the facts.
  • Not one commercial airline has ever been able to make a profit operating out of the Island Airport from the time the airport opened in 1938 to today.

  • Porter Airlines, by far the most sophisticated, was well funded from the beginning, and managed by experienced airline executives like Robert and Michael Deluce. Still, Porter could not make a profit operating out of the Island Airport. If Porter could not make a profit, then no one can.

  • Now it is three to four times more expensive for airlines to operate out of the Island than Pearson. No other airline will risk their money, if that is the case.

  • The Tripartite Agreement, that sets the terms of operation at the Island Airport, will terminate in 2033, ten years from now.

  • Ports Toronto may try to prolong the life of the airport for as long as possible, but what financial institution will lend them money when they are running at a loss every year and when the terms of operation for companies flying out of the Island Airport will terminate in 2033?

The airport must close and now is the time to begin planning what should happen to the Island Airport lands. That is exactly what Parks not Planes is doing. For many years community groups fought the airport on issues like noise, pollution, safety and traffic. Now the PnP is launching a campaign with a positive message: Let’s create a magnificent park on the airport lands.

Transforming 215 acres of land in the downtown core from an airport into a public space is a unique opportunity. This is the most spectacular piece of property in the Greater Toronto Area. To the south and west of the airport lands is Lake Ontario; to the east is Toronto Harbour; the land is contiguous with Hanlan’s Point and the Toronto Island Park; to the north and east is the Toronto skyline and the new Waterfront Toronto redevelopment with parks and live-work neighbourhoods.

These are the unique features of the airport lands.
  • All of the land is publicly owned by the Canadian Government, its agency, Ports Toronto and the City of Toronto. There will be no cost to acquire the land.

  • It is connected to the mainland by the pedestrian tunnel under the Western Gap giving 24 hour, 7 days a week public access.

  • Once the airport is closed, the wire fence separating the airport from Hanlan’s Point can be taken down to connect the airport lands to the Toronto Island Park. This will create an 800 acre park, as large as Central Park in New York City.

  • The beach that extends from Gibraltar Point to the Western Gap will be the longest in Toronto. This was once the city’s premier beach before the airport was built and can become the same again with a little remedial work.

There are any number of uses for this spectacular land. But members of Parks not Planes insist that it must become parkland. There is a real need for more parks in the city’s core. Today 300,000 people live in Toronto’s downtown and more developments are in the planning and construction stages.

The downtown has the most serious deficiency of parks of any community in the city. Most of these residents live in high-rise buildings with no immediate access to green space. Adding 215 acres of the airport lands to the Toronto Park system, with easy access and adjacent to the downtown, will go a long way towards creating the green space needed to improve the quality of life of the people living in downtown core.

A park such as this should have facilities that enhance the lives of the people of the city and become a showcase for Toronto. One opportunity is to improve facilities for boating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking and water sports. Another is to create an interpretive centre on climate change and how we can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Toronto Island – sand dunes near Gibraltar Point
Toronto Island – sand dunes near Gibraltar Point

The airport lands present any number of opportunities. Trees with paths through the urban forests is one. The paths could be converted to skating and cross-country ski trails in winter. Along the waterfront overlooking the Western Gap there can be outdoor patios with restaurants and coffee houses or just places to sit and watch the boats in summer, spring and fall.

It has been a long struggle by the people of Toronto to reclaim the Island Airport lands. Now is the time to think about the future and create something we can all take pride in and enjoy.


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