The dynamics of a struggling airport

By Gord Mahaffy


Looking back to 2012, probably the biggest disappointment for COPA Flight 70 was the decision not to extend runway 12/30 to 5,000 feet at Oshawa Airport. This would have accommodated the growing fleet of corporate jet aircraft which are being squeezed out of the greater Toronto area (GTA) by the closing of Buttonville, and the gridlock at Person airport.

This has left a volatile situation in Oshawa which could result in several outcomes. The worst case scenario is that the Oshawa airport would become dysfunctional and close.

The next scenario would see the Oshawa airport shrinking in size (both physically and in service) as non-aviation businesses continue to build on airport land. This would result in decreasing airport movements serving only private owners and flight schools that could afford the increasing expenses.

The happiest outcome would be to let the airport grow within its physical boundaries allowing it to serve general aviation in the eastern sector of the GTA. This would provide a model of integration between a local airport and an expanding city. This model was supported by the recent Genivair study.

The stakeholders The most affected group are the immediate users of the airport. These include local pilots (renters and owners) who keep their aircraft in Oshawa. Then there are both local students and “out of country” students who are learning to fly at Oshawa.

Two flight schools support these students as well as providing maintenance to the aviation community.

There are several speciality businesses including an aircraft parts supplier and an aircraft restoration and customizing business. This group has always supported the airport including the extension of the runways. They have been pro-active and have appeared before Oshawa council to make their position known.

Another large group of stakeholders is the non-resident aviation community. This includes pilots, students and owners who fly into Oshawa from other locations. It also includes international flights (from the USA) and aircraft from all over Canada.

Given the number of licensed pilots in the USA (617,128 – Wikipedia for 2011) and Canada (68,932 – Wikipedia for 2011), this group actually outnumbers the population of Oshawa (149,607 – Wikipedia for 2011).

These people have been completely disenfranchised and have no input into decisions made about the Oshawa airport.

Another group affected by the airport is the residents of Oshawa in general. They seem to have no interest in the process whatsoever.

They have ignored information meetings, council meetings and will not even vote in a municipal election (less than 26% turnout in 2010). To be fair, airport expansion was not an issue before the 2010 municipal elections.

The most controversial group is the CORE group (Concerned Citizens Opposed to Runway Expansion). They are an activist group estimated at about 200 people who adamantly opposed the runway extension and seem to have a disproportionate influence on the Oshawa city council.

They have been successful in having one of their members appointed to the Airport Advisory Committee and two of their members appointed to a new working group studying the new 2013 business plan for the airport.

They are extremely well organized and familiar with marketing and political lobbying.

The most powerful group is the Oshawa City Council who administrators the airport since it was turned over to the city in 1996 when the Paul Martin government restructured the CARs and Transport Canada. It consists of the mayor, seven regional councillors and three city councillors.

The council made itself vulnerable to activist groups in 2010 when they abandoned the ward system and required voters to vote for candidates from a list. Although several councillors including the mayor supported the runway extension, the council as a whole seems to be against any meaningful expansion. This is evidenced by the committee they set up to help develop a new airport business plan for 2013.

This working group will report back to the Development Services Committee, however, the group consists of two CORE members and two councillors who voted against the runway extension. Other members include the airport manager, the director of economic development for the city of Oshawa and a member of the Airport Advisory Committee. Many members of the aviation community in Oshawa consider this to be a highly biased anti-airport group.

The airport management at this time has shown a great deal of patience and is working closely with all stakeholders.

However, the local aviation community is looking forward to 2014 and the looming municipal election to see if the dynamics of this standoff will change.

One thing that will be different about this election is that the “airport issue” will be front and centre. COPA Flight 70 promises this.