Porter, Jets, and the Island Airport: A Primer
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Porter, Jets, and the Island Airport: A Primer

The issues, questions, and politics involved in Porter's proposal to fly jets out of the island airport.

If you’ve picked up any newspaper or turned on the radio recently, you’ll know that Porter Airlines has a big campaign going on—we’re not talking about its perma-seat sale, although you may have noticed lots of ads for that, too. No, this campaign involves asking the airline’s supPorters (really) to contact their local councillors and tell them that they really want the airline to fly jets out of the island’s Billy Bishop Airport.

Today, council debates the issue and will decide whether and how to move forward with Porter’s plan to expand its operations. Here’s a rundown of the often technical arguments and issues involved in this turbulent debate.

The Tripartite Agreement

Signed in 1983 by the federal and municipal governments and the predecessor to the Port Authority, the tripartite agreement [PDF] lays out regulations and restrictions intended to govern Billy Bishop Airport until 2033. What it contains that’s pertinent to the current debate are limits on noise levels (referred to as the Noise Exposure Forecast Contour, or NEF contour), a prohibition against jet-powered aircraft (turboprops like the existing Porter planes are okay), and a prohibition against constructing or extending runways without agreement from all three stakeholders.

Modifying the tripartite agreement would require all three stakeholders to agree to do so and then to negotiate all changes. It’s been done twice before, in 1985 and in 2003. Re-opening the agreement would come with some risks: it would not simply affect certain line items, but would make the whole document subject to change. That is why the motion at council will spell out what negotiating terms the City will proceed with if it gets to that stage, so a needless and complicated mess can be avoided.

The Jets

In April 2013, Porter Airlines announced that it had placed a conditional order with Bombardier for up to 30 jets valued at over $2 billion. It was the first order placed for the CS100 jets, referred to as “whisper jets” for their allegedly quiet takeoffs and landings.

The jets can accommodate more people than Porter’s existing turboprops, and fly farther. This means the airline could expand its list of destinations to include Vancouver, Los Angeles, Florida, and various spots in the Caribbean. In effect, Porter would no longer be just a regional commuter and business airline, but a departure point for vacation hot spots. The desired business shift might hint at Porter’s need to attract new investors and provide liquidity for existing shareholders.

There’s also the matter of procurement deadlines. This morning on Metro Morning, Porter CEO Robert Deluce said he needed to make a deposit on the Bombardier jets this month, effectively passing off his company’s problem to city council by pressuring it to rush the decision he wants.

Worth mentioning is that if council decides to allow jets in a re-negotiated tripartite agreement, it will open up the airport to all jets that meet the criteria. Because of Open Skies agreements that govern the aviation industry, any class of jet of any company would be able to land at Billy Bishop so long as it had a slot and met the noise and runway requirements.

The Runway

In order to accommodate the new jets Porter hopes to procure, the main airport runway would have to be extended 200 metres over the water on both the east and west sides, which would represent a 33-per-cent increase. Unless Porter is granted an exemption by Transport Canada, this move would affect what’s called the Marine Exclusion Zone (MEZ), which for safety reasons excludes boating and other marine activity in a radius along the runway. The transportation advocacy group Transport Action Ontario commissioned a study [PDF] on the runway that found the MEZ could end up tripling to over a kilometre away from the runway, kayaking and sailing could be severely limited in the west harbour, and new flight paths might limit development in the Port Lands.

Transport Canada has stated it will not formally comment on these concerns at this time because of insufficient information, and because it would need to wait until a request for a review is submitted by the airport [PDF].

While the Toronto Port Authority has indicated it would pay for a runway extension, its $52.1-million borrowing limit currently prevents it from doing so, as the runway is estimated to cost in the neighbourhood of $75 million to $100 million. The Port Authority will likely look to a P3 to help manage costs on the project, although it is unclear what form that would take.

Slots and Caps

Among the restrictions on Billy Bishop airport is a strict cap on the number of flights per day. There are 202 flight slots per day between 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., and Porter Airlines uses an average of 86 of them (there are a handful of others for commercial flights, and the rest are for non-commercial uses). Billy Bishop is currently at capacity when it comes to its number of daily flights (although not when it comes to the number of people on each flight); the Toronto Port Authority projects that there will be 2.4 million passengers in 2014. This is a far cry from 2005, before Porter began operating at the island airport, when only 26,000 passengers flew from the downtown airport.

The City wants to maintain current passenger volumes with a phased increase to 2.7 million passengers after a set of conditions have been met, including accompanying infrastructure improvement. After that, the City would negotiate a yet-to-be-determined flight cap based on the experience to date.

However, the Port Authority has resisted a long-term cap on the number of flights—although it’s amenable to a short-term phased increase. Without caps—which are currently self-imposed by the TPA—the capacity of Billy Bishop’s passenger volume with current turbo props could grow to 3.8 million, which would move it past Winnipeg’s and Halifax’s international airports and make it the seventh busiest in Canada.

Traffic and Planning

The possibility of a passenger increase at Billy Bishop Airport creates its own set of planning issues. The City’s official plan for the foot of Bathurst would have to be modified to bring it in line with the proposed changes. Already high traffic levels at Eireann Quay could get worse, although they might be somewhat alleviated when the pedestrian link to the airport opens in 2015. But the costs to manage the traffic will be significant, as 70 per cent of the airport’s passengers arrive by taxi or private car.

In January, the Toronto Port Authority issued a request to the federal government for $100 million (over and above the $75 million to $100 million for the runway) to improve traffic infrastructure on the mainland. This was done without the City’s knowledge, and the funding could come from the Building Canada Fund, which the City would be counting on to fund other infrastructure priorities.

The jets proposal also comes before the Union Pearson Express train is set to roll out in spring 2015. It remains to be seen what kind of impact, if any, that infrastructure will have on Porter’s business model, as it will make it easier for Toronto’s business community to access Pearson.

Then we have the issue of long-term planning on Toronto’s waterfront. Waterfront Toronto opposes Porter’s proposal, arguing in a December 2013 letter that it will materially and adversely impact planning along the waterfront, and points to its traffic implications in particular:

The serious transportation, road congestion and community impact issues created by the airport’s current operations need to be addressed before considering expansion and the potential exacerbation of these issues. For example, the City of Toronto technical studies show that the proposed expansion could more than double peak car volumes at Eireann Quay from 750 per hour to 1,715 per hour….

Given the findings of the City of Toronto’s review and the problematic conditions for transportation and traffic created by the airport’s current operations, Waterfront Toronto believes that expansion has the potential to create significant risks for waterfront revitalization.

There are also several existing community amenities that are not frequently found in close proximity to an airport. Across the western gap there are a school, a community centre, and a few smaller parks. There is also a growing waterfront community in local condos; at community meetings, a number of these groups have raised concerns about the airport expansion.

After all, if any change is made to Billy Bishop Airport, its effects will likely last longer than any current tenant or local use: with this in mind, the plans should focus on the long-term sustainability and well-being of the community and waterfront at large.

What the Report Contains

The report passed by the Executive Committee has lots of different parts. It lays out which items would need to be studied in an environmental assessment (which would take a year), provides a provision that the MEZ cannot materially change the western shipping channel, refers to phased slot and cap limits, and covers issues related to noise certification, runway design completion, and more.

Even if this does pass council, the results of the year-long environmental assessment would be presented to the next council, so it would be up to that group to decide. And there are enough unanswered questions and outstanding issues—who will pay for infrastructure upgrades, what noise and design certification will involve, how to resolve local planning issues and anticipate the implications for the waterfront—to give even the most ardent Porter supporter pause.


Porter has some high-profile boosters in the mayor and deputy mayor, but the passing of the motion is no sure thing. Downtown left-wing councillors like Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) oppose the expansion plans—but so, too, does conservative councillor John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West), and right-leaning councillor Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke Lakeshore) strongly objected to corporate handouts when the Executive Committee discussed the issue.

One headcount has the issue evenly split, with 14 supporting expansion, 15 opposing, and 16 toss-ups. Among the undecided councillors are Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East), Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York-Centre), Ana Bailao (Ward 18, Davenport), Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest), Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River), Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence), Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale), Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River), Ron Moeser (Ward 44, Scarborough East) and Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West).

Either side will need 23 votes to win the day.

Among the mayoral candidates, Rob Ford has offered the strongest endorsement of Porter, John Tory argues there’s not enough information to make an informed decision, Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) offers conditional support—a flip flop from her previous no-jets position—David Soknacki offers more conditional support (he does not, for example, want City money subsidizing the company), and Olivia Chow opposes the airport’s expansion.