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So, Buttonville is closing

 

There recently was another press release from Toronto Airways on the future of Buttonville Airport. So what? To many, this is just another in a long line of threats or promises yet to be kept. To others it is the end of the world. Here is my perspective.

Buttonville is a privately owned, publicly available airport, whose 160,000 movements and millions of dollars of annual economic activity illustrate that it is a vital component of the Toronto air transportation scene. Since it is privately owned, it is up to the owners, if they feel that they can get a better return by using the property for nonaviation purposes, to plough it under and get on with life.

I know that this has been debated by the owners for many years. I concluded many years ago that eventually Buttonville would close.

While I have been employed by COPA, I have tried many times to convince various levels of government and others in this industry to develop a plan to deal with Buttonville’s closure. I did so by focusing on the need for a review of the National Airports Policy and creation of a General Aviation Policy as well as participating in the debate over the future of the Pickering Lands, which at one time were proposed to be the location of a GA airport and eventually grow to become a major airline airport (more on this later).

In all of these activities I used the Buttonville situation to highlight the need to do something to ensure the future of GA in the GTA. As we all know, you cannot develop an airport overnight, so I pressed for a plan long ago in order to provide a smooth transition when, not if, Buttonville closed. And the consequences of not coming up with a plan were detailed in my October 2009 column entitled “The Death of GA.”

Some have a different perspective on the issue. For example, I challenged the Airport Management Council of Ontario (AMCO), in their capacity as the representative association for smaller Ontario airports, to get the area airports together to examine the need for another airport. After more than a year without response, they recently issued a press release in response to my call to action indicating that while they are concerned about the closure of Buttonville, the “general consensus is that there is significant excess capacity to absorb the Buttonville Municipal Airport movements within the remaining (12) airports serving Toronto and the surrounding area.”

They cite an unreleased Transport Canada study in support of that position. The AMCO press release then goes on to say that essentially the closure of Buttonville is not an urgent issue and that they will work at some point in the future toward another airport should the need arise. So, I guess there is no need to worry. In other words, who cares?

I was not aware that there are 12 airports serving Toronto and that they can accommodate the activity from Buttonville. By my count, there are only eight airports from Burlington in the west to Oshawa in the east and Holland Landing in the north, and two of these (Downsview and Markham) are restricted and probably will not change and one is Pearson, where we know they have no appetite for increased GA traffic.

With many of the remaining five airports having limited capacity to absorb more activity from Buttonville, I simply cannot understand AMCO’s position. Do they believe that Peterborough is an airport that can serve Toronto’s GA needs? With a 90-minute drive when the roads are clear and $220 by taxi, I cannot conceive of Peterborough meeting Toronto’s needs.

It is like saying that if all of the airports in Ontario were to close, it is not a problem because all of the activity could be accommodated in the rest of Canada, too far away to serve Ontario’s needs but nevertheless available to absorb the traffic.

In fact, when Buttonville closes, significant portions of GA will disappear rather than move. I believe that as much as half of Buttonville’s movements will disappear when Buttonville closes unless there is another airport nearby to provide a Toronto solution.

Can we as a nation afford to lose major GA airports in Canada? Some, including the federal government and several municipalities, believe that we can afford it. By their lack of involvement in many airports that are being threatened, they are in effect stating that they are happy to lose these airports. I submit that we cannot afford to lose any of these major airports unless there are viable alternatives.

In 2002, when Mayor Miller and others were attacking the Toronto City Centre Airport, I provided a PowerPoint presentation to several levels of government as part of my advocacy effort in which I compared Toronto’s airport infrastructure with other North American cities.

With the restrictions and/or threatened closures of other Toronto airports like City Centre, where resident GA aircraft have all but been forced out, Downsview’s prohibition on anything other than Bombardier aircraft and Markham’s restricted status etc, Toronto was unique in North America.

It is interesting to note that in that presentation I pointed out that Buttonville’s future is uncertain beyond 2010. I hit the year right on. I concluded the presentation with the question: Is Toronto a world class city when it is so far out of line with other cities as far as GA as a mode of transport? With Buttonville closing and no replacement in the works, the situation I warned about in 2002 has become a reality.

And where does the Greater Toronto Airports Authority stand? At one time, Pearson Airport was a major generator of funding for regional airports but when it was handed over to the GTAA, they gradually backed away from funding for other airports.

Most recently, the GTAA terminated their commitment for a subsidy to Buttonville, which became a catalyst for the Toronto Airways decision to close. Recent quotes in the press from GTAA management make it clear that their exclusive focus is on Pearson Airport.

I believe that there may be wording in the GTAA’s lease agreement with the federal government that they have a continuing role to play in area reliever airports but they have made it clear that they are in fact now the Greater Toronto Airport (no “s”) Authority.

The GTAA did make an attempt to become an “airports” authority when it launched a plan to develop the Pickering Lands, at the request of the federal government. The GTAA called for a GA airport but the problem with the plan, besides not consulting with anyone in our sector as they developed their plan, was that it called for closing three area airports (Buttonville, Markham and Oshawa) and somehow forcing all GA flights out of City Centre.

The new Pickering GA airport would occupy the same area as the eventual major airline airport, which history has proven would result in GA eventually being forced out of Pickering. Force GA out of four airports and then force them out of Pickering eventually, charge opening day landing fees of a minimum of $45 and tie-down space for $700 per month; not a good plan.

The GTAA certainly demonstrated their lack of understanding of GA when they put their proposal together without consultation, so maybe it is a good thing that they decided not to pursue their plan for a GA airport at Pickering.

Derek Sifton, president of Toronto Airways, asked me recently for my support for his efforts to promote Pickering as a solution. Given the short time until Buttonville closes, developing an airport on land already set aside for an airport is logically much better than trying to establish an airport in a short period of time from a green field that has not even been zoned for an airport or had any environmental assessments performed.

I offered my support, conditional on a commitment from whoever will control the Pickering Lands that GA’s future (including flight training and personal aviation) is assured on the Pickering Lands.

There is plenty of room to configure the runways and ramp area so that the GA portion of the airport will be separate from but compatible with the airline airport. An example exists in Ottawa, so it can be done. Start with a GA airport and if/when another airline airport is needed for Toronto, construct it elsewhere on the property. The big question is: Who will pay? No level of government has the appetite for paying to develop an airport.

And where does our new Transport Minister, Chuck Strahl, sit on this issue? I met with him shortly after he took office and highlighted COPA’s key issues, including the lack of a GA policy and the need for a review of the National Airports Policy. I used the Buttonville situation as well as Edmonton City Centre and Montreal’s St. Hubert and Mascouche to illustrate how a lack of attention to these two policy issues is leading to a destruction of the regional/reliever airport network.

Minister Strahl was non-committal. I also sent him the recent Toronto Airways press release and asked him “for his comment on this development and the fact that there are no apparent plans, at any level of government, to deal with the loss of this very important general aviation airport.” There has been no response from the Minister.

There have been federal studies on smaller airports but unfortunately they were narrowly focused on passenger demand. For example, following COPA’s advocacy for a study Transport Canada conducted a Regional and Small Airports Study in 2004 and concluded that for those airports that are under stress “Airport operators could further rationalize airport infrastructure and services to match demand, increase user fees, or implement a combination of these measures.”

The report essentially supported retention of the National Airports Policy, which has abandoned smaller airports and encourages regional decision-makers to close more airports.

So, Buttonville is closing. Who cares? It certainly seems to be in line with a federal plan. I have been involved with this issue for 20 years, going back to the days of the Southern Ontario Area Airports Study, advocating at every opportunity not for more studies and reports but for a plan that would ensure that there are an adequate number of airports to serve GA so that it can continue to make the important contribution to the overall wellbeing of aviation as well as continue to serve as a mode of transport for Canada.

Apparently either very few who should care do care or they have not yet woken up to the reality that a closure of Buttonville is imminent.

The clock continues to tick down on GA in the GTA. There may be proposals somewhere that have not yet been made public. Now would be a good time to come forward.