Commitment for Pickering Lands refreshes COPA Concerns for General Aviation

By Kevin Psutka, COPA President and CEO

The Canadian government issued a press release on 11 June 2013 concerning the status of the Pickering Lands to help end the uncertainty about the potential for an airport there at some point in the future as well as freeing up some land for other uses.

While a firm commitment to establish an airport there is welcome news for aviation, the uncertainty over a home for GA continues and COPA responded to Transport Minister Lebel to remind him of our concerns.

COPA has been involved in the Pickering Lands debate for decades. One event in the long history of this issue was the development of a plan by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority in 2007, at the request of the federal government, to create a GA airport in 2012 from which an airline airport would develop when Pearson (CYYZ) reached capacity. The plan, which was flawed in its assumptions about our sector of aviation’s willingness to pay the proposed rates to fly and reside at the new airport, as well as our concern about putting all of GA’s eggs in one basket by closing three airports to open one, eventually died in about 2010. The GTAA’s reaction to the stalled proposal was to pull its annual funding for Buttonville airport and to some extent that led to the owners of the Buttonville airport deciding to close the airport and sell the property for non-aviation development.

The next iteration in the Pickering Lands history was in 2010, when a study was conducted by the GTAA, again at the request of the feds, to make recommendations on the continuing need to retain the Pickering Lands for an airport.

The Needs Assessment Study, which was released in 2011 and is referred to in the government’s current press release, caused COPA to commission a review using the COPA member supported Freedom to Fly Fund The review was summarized in a press release.

I also met with Transport Minister Lebel, who at the time was new to the position, to brief him on a number of issues, including the Needs Assessment Study and I asked for his policy staff to work with COPA to develop a more realistic plan that involved GA. To date, Minister Lebel has not taken COPA up on that advice.

The government press release indicates, by mentioning flawed Needs Assessment Study, that the Minister is relying on it for planning the future but there is perhaps for one glimmer of hope. The press release makes the statement that “With the Buttonville Airport closing…” so there is at least an acknowledgement of need for an alternative to Buttonville and consequently there may be a role for GA at Pickering to address the loss of the very active airport at Buttonville.

Unfortunately, with Buttonville slated to close in the next year or two (no date has been set), no development of an airport until the 2027-2037 timeframe will leave a significant void in the GTA.

COPA has been advocating the feds to develop a plan for GA in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for many years, not only in light of the closing of Buttonville but also the ongoing issues at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (CYTZ) where GA has been systematically driven out over a period of years. We have also advocated for development of a GA policy to set the framework for determining what Canada should do to provide a sustainable sector of aviation from which our airline system is fed.

And we have advocated for a review of the National Airports Policy, which to a large extent abandoned smaller airports, leaving them to the whim of local governments with non-aviation agendas.

In copying the Transport Minister on this article, I renewed our ongoing concerns regarding the Pickering Lands Needs Assessment Study and its assumptions about GA in the GTA as well as expressing our desire to be consulted in the planning for the airport so that the demand for another GA airport in the GTAA, as confirmed by the COPA review, can be fulfilled.

The government press release is a step in the right direction of providing a future for GA in the GTAA but there is much work to do. In the continuing absence of a plan for GA in the GTA, no GA Policy in Canada and no appetite on the part of the government to review the National Airports policy, we are all working in a vacuum.