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Ignorance, arrogance, fear quash an airport’s growth

 

Oshawa Airport and the local citizens had a tremendous opportunity drop in their lap when the owners of Buttonville airport announced its closure.

With the attitude of the Toronto politicians and people, there are no alternatives being made available for roughly half of the activity at the very busy GA airport, so Oshawa has a “build it and they will come” opportunity for capturing certain traffic that has no place else to go and still be within striking distance of Toronto.

The key opportunity for growth lies in the corporate jet traffic that will be displaced from Buttonville. With Pearson shunning this traffic with huge landing fees and slot restrictions and Billy Bishop City Centre’s ban on jet aircraft, Oshawa is the next closest airport, but with a runway length of 4,000 feet it will not meet all of the demand.

So, airport management went to considerable effort to design and sell the need for an extension to 5,000 feet, considered by all in the industry to be the minimum length to attract this high value traffic. COPA strongly supported the effort to convince local citizens that the extension is needed and in the best interests of the future of the airport and the city.

The culmination of this effort was a meeting at which the city council voted to either accept or reject the airport management’s proposal or approve a peer review, in which all of the facts would be confirmed. Unfortunately, they decided against the extension and, even more devastating, they did not approve the peer review that would have certainly confirmed the viability of the extension and disprove the small anti-airport group’s outrageous claims.

One of the attendees at the council meeting was Doug Ronan, one of COPA’s Southern Ontario directors, who commented: “The big thing here is that these non-aviation councillors, when they are presented with the facts from our side, don't necessarily understand them or some choose not to. Then there is the huge misinformation campaign - whether purposely or through ignorance - on the part of the NIMBYs (not in my backyard). The councillors aren't qualified to know what to believe.”

Bad as this is, it is perfectly in line with the National Airports Policy (NAP) http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/programs/airports-policy-menu-71.htm. COPA has campaigned for a review of this policy for many years because we knew that it would lead to situations such as Oshawa, but successive governments have stood by it and continue to do so.

I noted in the agenda for this hearing that General Motors asked to speak. To my knowledge, this may be the first time that they have stepped forward. Certainly, when the closure of the airport was debated in 2007 with the release of the GTAA’s development plan for Pickering, in which they required the Oshawa airport to close, the silence from GM was deafening.

Frankly, unless major corporations like GM make public statements about the value of the airport and even threaten to leave, the common sense advocacy from organizations like COPA would make no difference.

Here are two quotes from the NAP:
“Much of the Canadian transportation system is overbuilt: 94 per cent of all air passengers and cargo use only 26 of 726 airports.”
And
“Local ownership and operation will enable these airports to provide services that are tailored specifically to local community needs. Local interests will be able to make operational decisions based on local needs.”

These two statements set the stage for the destruction of the system of smaller airports in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, to name a few, as local interest groups and misinformed politicians carry out these NAP statements. Without federal oversight of local decisions, political agendas and well-organized misinformation campaigns are all that it takes to achieve the NAP assumption that “Local interests will be able to make operational decisions based on local needs”.

The fact is however, as demonstrated by several decisions so far across Canada, that local “needs” do not always have anything to do with the national air transportation system.

To deny the runway extension at this time is in some ways understandable, given the very passionate opposition that has occurred, but to deny the peer review, which would likely bring the truth to the table to counter the misleading, inaccurate and false information portrayed by the NIMBYs, is simply irresponsible.

It is clear to me that those who should be getting all of the facts simply do not want them. Playing with an important asset in this manner should be unconscionable but then again we are dealing with politics, not common sense.

Until the fundamental flaws are corrected by a thorough review of the NAP, we can expect that the same sort of negative things will occur at other airports across Canada until a viable system no longer exists.

While one decision about a runway extension does not bring the system down, it, combined with whatever may happen next at the Oshawa airport and at other airports where development or even maintenance is stifled, will lead to the destruction of the system.

To this point in time it is only COPA that has been calling for a review of the NAP. As has been demonstrated by the lack of action on the part of the feds, we are the wrong organization to be spearheading this effort because we are too easily dismissed as rich people with toys.

So far, organizations representing commercial and business aviation interests, including ATAC, CBAA, CAC and even AMCO, representing smaller airports in Ontario, have failed to support COPA’s call for a review of the NAP. And in virtually all other locations, the businesses and government agencies that depend on the airports remain mysteriously in the background, leaving us to make what little noise we can.
 
Perhaps Oshawa airport will survive despite this significant setback or perhaps this is the start of a path similar to Edmonton City Centre, where growth and even survival was stifled by political decisions to limit activity and more recently remove a runway.

Stifling growth of an airport creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which it fails to make the kind of money that others desire and this leads to more debate about its need. After several of these important airports close perhaps someone at the National level will take note and stop the decline of our air transportation infrastructure.