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Richard Florida was wrong then, and is wrong now

“There appears to be no viable alternative for the Island Airport”: Porter Airlines

Billy Bishop Airport

In a report released by the Toronto’s Island Airport’s owner today, Richard Florida is singing the same song he did a decade ago, praising the alleged benefits of the Airport.

Just not enough business to be viable

“He was wrong then, and is wrong now” said Brian Iler, chair of CommunityAIR, an advocate for converting the Airport to parkland. “Setting aside everything else, history shows there’s just not enough business for an airline to be financially successful operating out of that Airport.”

Three airlines have now failed to find sufficient business:

  • City Express flew out of the Island Airport from 1984 until 1991, eventually declaring bankruptcy in 1996

  • Air Ontario flew out of the Island Airport from 1990 until 2006, when its annual business had dwindled to just 22,321 passengers [1]

  • While Porter has seen many more passengers, its business failed to significantly grow after 2012, and has admitted it lost serious money (pre COVID): – $18,910,000 in losses in 2017, – a projected loss of $40M in 2018, and – a loss of $30M in 2019.

In spite of millions for construction of a tunnel for easy access and more millions on terminal upgrades, the expenditures have not assured Porter’s, or the Airport's, viability.

Porter has been significantly reducing the number of its flights out of the Island Airport, has threatened to leave the Island Airport entirely, and has bought jets to fly out of Pearson, where there is far more potential business.

Porter has stated, in a letter dated December 21, 2018, that its business growth is constrained at the Island Airport by the prohibition of jets and the convenience of the Union-Pearson Express – Florida ignores the huge success of the UP Express entirely.

Is the Island Airport viable without Porter? Here’s Porter’s frank opinion, from the same letter:

“If Porter were to leave the Island Airport, there appears to be no viable alternative for the airport.”

Is the Island Airport really the economic engine Florida suggests?

Or would the benefits to be derived by the Toronto economy from air travel occur at Pearson in any event?

In a blog post by another U of T professor, Sandford Borins, entitled The Last Thing Toronto Needs Now, Prof. Borins reviewed the last effort to justify the continued existence of the Island Airport (by York Aviation), and concluded:

The York Aviation report even undercuts its own claims of indirect and wider economic impacts by admitting that some of the growth in passenger traffic at BBTCA will be traffic that is displaced from Pearson and should therefore not be counted. The York Aviation report concedes that “it is difficult to say ‘a priori’ how much displacement will occur in any case and the analysis of these effects is potentially complex.”

Florida ignores the issue.

Short-haul flying is the worst!

Aviation is a significant greenhouse gas emitter. Short‑haul flights, which the Island Airport exclusively provides, are the transportation sector’s worst emitters.

Modes of transportation compared
Modes of transportation compared

Florida ignores the urgent imperative to reduce those emissions.

There’s good news: the Federal Government is planning electrified High Frequency Rail in the Toronto to Ottawa/Montréal corridor, to be operational by 2030. It has huge potential to replace the Island Airport’s short-haul flights with fast and frequent service, as high‑speed trains have for many Europeans.

Is there a better use for the Island Airport lands?

We think so. Our downtown core is more deficient in parkland than any other neighbourhood in the city, states a 2019 City report.

Converting its lands to parkland would add the Airport’s valuable 215 acres to the Island Park, making it as large as New York City’s Central Park.

That’s not far-fetched.

Map of the Island Airport lands

As Florida notes (“The clock is ticking ...”) on June 30, 2033, just over 10 years from now, the City’s lease to Ports Toronto of an essential portion (green in the plan to the right) of the Airport lands ends.

Now is the time to start imagining how those 215 acres should be used – is the public interest best served by renewing the Airport lease, or by converting them to parkland?

Edmonton, Berlin, and Chicago have converted their downtown airports to parkland, and Santa Monica will do so soon.

It is time for Toronto to join them.

[1] Page 18 of PT’s 2014 Airport Master Plan

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