The Death of GA

September 22, 2009

By Kevin Pstuka


General Aviation has faced many challenges over the years. Issues bubble to the surface, such as airspace changes and security restrictions, and we “win,” in the sense that we deal with them as best we can to maximize our freedoms.

In my opinion, being able to travel by small aircraft and experience the extensive beauty of Canada that can only be reached by small aircraft is one of the fundamental facets of Canada’s quality of life. Indeed, in this 100th year of Canadian powered flight, it is clear that General Aviation helped to build Canada and continues to contribute extensively to the well being, freedom and enjoyment of millions of Canadians.

There is one issue, however, that is persistent and threatening General Aviation’s very existence in many key areas of the country.

The system of GA airports has no policy focus to help it remain viable. If it is not addressed soon, it will lead to the death of GA in Canada.

Ensuring the availability and accessibility of landing facilities has occupied a great deal of COPA’s resources over the years. From defending our right to have an airstrip on our property (see the Supreme Court case due to be heard this Fall) to ensuring that there are a sufficient number of airports with facilities catering to GA and conveniently located where we live, do business and play, COPA has worked hard to fend off a deterioration of the airport system.

After all, if there are no places to land and store our aircraft, there would be no GA. There are many other issues that can contribute to the death of GA, but runways and related facilities remain the most precious commodity.

I have said for many years that our country needs a policy for GA to help define what is required to keep this vital sector of aviation alive. We are making some headway with the recent effort to collect data on our sector (see the article on eCATS), but it will take time to generate sufficient data to prove that we have a significant economic footprint.

Recent events indicate that we do not have time to wait for this exercise to play out.

As we debate the relevance of our sector to Canada, the system is coming apart at the seams and the primary reason why this is occurring is that the National Airports Policy (NAP), put in place in the 1990s, set the stage for divesting of government ownership of virtually all airports except the largest airports serving the airlines, and set as one of its goals to decrease the number of airports in Canada.

The front page of the NAP states that “Much of the Canadian transportation system is overbuilt: 94 per cent of all air passengers and cargo use only 26 of 726 airports…” This statement ignores the fact that millions of passengers and large quantities of cargo, medevac flights, police surveillance, flight training, business, tourism and personal travel flights occur at the remaining 700 airports.

For the past 15 years or so, the feds have put meat behind the NAP statement by divesting of virtually all airports, leaving them to the whim of local interests and politics. There is no longer a central focus on what system should be in place, other than the 26 major airports in which the feds retain ownership, tax heavily and return very little funding to help sustain and grow the system. This policy fails to ensure that an adequate system of airports will remain in the long run.

A very clear example of the failure of this policy is the recent announcement by the owners of Buttonville airport that they will begin winding down operations and will redevelop the property.

Buttonville is a publicly available airport but it is privately owned; started many years ago and still owned by the Sifton family.

The announcement highlighted that the owners are “moving forward with the appropriate planning and pre-development work to convert the lands on which the Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport is currently operated.” The owners are “proceeding with submissions to the Town of Markham to allow a greater variety of uses than are permitted under existing planning designations.”

The key reason for moving forward now with plans to close the airport is “the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) decision to terminate the operational funding previously provided to Toronto Airways Limited (operator of the airport and FBO on behalf of the owners) for the continued operation of the airport.”

The GTAA agreed several years ago to provide funding to the owners of Buttonville airport in order for the owners to realize a sufficient return on their land compared with what they could achieve by employing the land for other uses. It was expected that this funding would remain in place until the Pickering Airport opened, at which time the Toronto Airways (Buttonville management team) would relocate to and operate the new airport’s FBO.

The announcement also stated that “the planning and design of a new development for the Buttonville lands would take several years before construction could proceed and that, in the interim, Toronto Airways Limited would continue to operate the airport as long as it was economically feasible to do so, recognizing that this would become increasingly challenging without operational funding from the GTAA.”

COPA was involved in the extensive effort to save this airport. I co-signed a letter from several organizations to the federal Transport Minister, copied to provincial and municipal officials, in support of the airport owner’s desire to continue with the airport and imploring the government to get involved financially.

All levels of government have so far refused to intervene. There were many excuses for not intervening, including the federal Finance Minister proclaiming after examining the books that this privately-owned airport did not need federal money, but the fact is that retention of this airport or an alternative to it appears to be not important to any level of government. So, aviation is left on its own to figure out its future.

The announcement assures readers that it will be several years until the airport closes. In my opinion, this announcement will do nothing to fire up anyone to do something about the future of this airport or securing an alternative in the immediate area.

It is typical that Canadians do not get fired up easily about anything, especially something that is in the future. In fact, Derek Sifton reported to me that in response to his calls to the aviation community to get behind his efforts to save the airport; very few have done anything so far.

Perhaps many believe that the owners are just posturing and that eventually someone will step in and work something out. There is no white knight, and any announcement of plans to redevelop an airport, no matter how long in the future, is a death sentence that normally leads to deterioration of the existing facility.

Please consider the following. There are no alternatives to accommodate the activity at Buttonville and there is no plan to develop alternatives.

City Centre Airport is essentially a Porter Airlines airport. The airline occupies a large portion of the airport, with plans to expand further. Although GA aircraft (except jets) are welcome, there are very limited and expensive storage facilities and no land available for construction of hangars (the large area on the south side of runway 26 is slated for Porter maintenance facilties).

Oshawa is expanding, thanks mainly to the City’s acceptance of a business plan that followed from a COPA-recommended economic impact study. Oshawa cannot accept much more activity, especially the extensive flight training that occurs at Buttonville, because of noise sensitivities.

Brampton is busy now and needs considerable improvements in order to handle more traffic. They have noise issues there that would be made much worse and probably threaten Brampton’s existence if a large portion of Buttonville’s activity moved there.

GA is not welcome at Pearson and it will increasingly restrict corporate and other non-commercial aircraft as it reaches capacity.

Markham’s future is uncertain because of its location, sitting partially on the Pickering lands that are reserved for a new airport. Other airports are too far away to be considered Toronto airports.

Toronto is unique in North America, in a negative way. Compared with cities of similar size in North America, Toronto is underserved by GA airports and the loss of Buttonville, without an alternative, would make this unique situation much worse. I have asked various levels of government for many years if it is appropriate for Toronto to be so different from the rest of North America. There has been no response.

And what about the Pickering Lands? Located east of Toronto, they are reserved for the next big airline airport in the region as Pearson reaches capacity. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (note the plural “Airports” – I will refer to this later) was asked by the feds to come up with a plan to develop and then operate the new airport.

Their plan was to first open a new GA airport and then grow it as airline demand developed. On the surface, this sounds like a viable solution to the loss of Buttonville. However, this is in no way a solution.

The plan called for closing Buttonville when the Pickering Airport opened (originally proposed for 2012), but it appears unlikely now that it will proceed for many years to come. Even if it proceeds at some point in the future, there are several problems with the plan, including a $45 landing fee, that make’s it a non-starter for our sector.

The plan also called for closing Oshawa and Markham airports and drive GA traffic from City Centre to Pickering to generate demand for Pickering from day one. The primary problem with this scenario is that at virtually every airport in Canada where airline operations increase, GA is pushed out.

Nothing in the plan for Pickering proposes a long term solution for this problem so, with no place to relocate anywhere on the horizon, the plan to close a number of airports is a death sentence for GA in Toronto and that is why COPA remains opposed to the development of the Pickering Lands as proposed by the GTAA.

The GTAA’s plan has been stalled in review at the federal level for several reasons.

In addition to COPA’s opposition, several airlines are opposed to spending any money on Pickering when landing fees at Pearson are already the highest in the world.

They do not want to see another Mirabel fiasco. And the Pickering Lands are a political football; the not-in-my-back-yards and environmental activists have been working against it for many years and it is clear that the feds will not decide on its future at least until there is a majority government, and there is no indication that this would occur anytime soon.

If you dig deep enough into the history of the Buttonville issue, you will find that one of the philosophies behind the support for this privately-owned airport, initially from the feds and then from the GTAA, was the relief the airport provides in off-loading corporate jets and other aircraft operations from the busy Pearson airport.

Buttonville has a tower, instrument approaches, Customs, ample ramp space, fuel, maintenance support to name a few and convenient road access to many business and other locations in the Toronto area.

This reliever airport concept is one of the key reasons why the comparable locations in the U.S. have many more airports in the vicinity of the main airports. Canada lacks this vision in most major cities.

There are exceptions, such as Calgary, where to airport authority is involved with the development of Springbank as a reliever but there is no general policy across Canada to ensure that this occurs at all major cities.

The GTAA unilaterally pulled the annual funding for Buttonville one year before the funding agreement was due for renegotiation and they have no intention of renewing the agreement. In essence, they have abandoned their support for the reliever airport concept.

So, the GTAA should now be renamed the Pearson Airport Authority because it is apparent that management’s interest is only on Pearson.

The lack of a positive response from the feds to our calls for their involvement indicates that they are content with this development which, in my opinion, violates their lease agreement with the GTAA.

Buttonville has lasted this long because of a couple of key people. Heather Sifton has vowed not to let the airport go. She has used words such as “Over my dead body” when discussing the issue with me.

Heather wants it to remain as a tribute to her husband, Michael, who started it from scratch many years ago and developed it into the going concern that it is today.

Derek Sifton is the businessman member of the family who has been balancing the family desires to continue the airport against the desires to move on to more profitable ventures.

I hold no blame or fault with the Sifton family for the decision to redevelop the property and I sympathize with them as they have debated long and hard about Michael’s legacy.

The economic contribution of the airport to the community is tremendous (see below) but the portion that goes directly into the Sifton family’s pocket is relatively small, certainly smaller than if the land was used for other more lucrative purposes.

The community will lose a valuable asset, not only in financial terms but in quality of life terms, and aviation will lose a key training facility, maintenance base and destination in the Toronto area. Only governments (municipal, provincial and federal) can ensure the viability of airports and determine, through a central policy, where the airports fit into an overall system.

The feds have no plan for GA airports. The Ontario government’s Ministry of Transportation eliminated their aviation group in the 1990s and although COPA, along with the Airport Management Council of Ontario, is working on restoring the previous activity, including financial assistance for smaller airports in a revived Community Airports Program, we are still some way away from achieving our goals.

And the local government has for the most part remained silent. I should also mention that all government users of the airport have also remained silent, including police and medevac - key corporate users also remain in the background. It is as if they do not care.

Well, COPA cares, on behalf of hundreds of private aircraft owners and pilots who are located there and thousands more who visit Buttonville regularly, but we cannot single-handedly turn this around. 

GA in the Toronto area is a rudderless ship and it will run aground eventually unless a collective effort is made to find a solution. The loss of Buttonville will be huge. Here are some facts about Buttonville to illustrate the impact that the loss of this airport would have (from a report by Malone Given Parsons Ltd for Buttonville Airport Management - the complete report is available on our website under the Flying in Canada button ):

In 2008, there were close to 164,000 movements, making it the fourth busiest airport in Ontario after Pearson, Ottawa, and London and the 11th busiest airport in Canada, just behind London and ahead of airports such as Abbotsford, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Moncton, and Halifax.

It is the closest airport to downtown Toronto able to accommodate the operation of corporate and government jets (jets are banned from City Centre).

Fixed Base Operations, aircraft sales, media and aircraft maintenance are located there, plus flight training, corporate operations and services.

The Federal and Provincial governments are regular and frequent users of Buttonville along with major Canadian, U.S. and international corporations. Emergency services operating at Buttonville include air ambulance, police, and RCMP.

Buttonville handles far more itinerant general aviation traffic than Pearson, City Centre, Hamilton and Oshawa.

Buttonville lies within the Region of York which is the fastest growing economic region in Canada. It currently is home to 495,000 jobs and is expected to reach 780,000 jobs by 2031. It is logical to conclude that demand for GA services, including airports, will increase in this area.

Buttonville airport creates approximately 550 full-time equivalent jobs from airport operations, including direct, indirect and induced employment. The airport contributes approximately $96 million in direct, indirect and induced contributions to gross domestic product. In addition, the people arriving and departing Buttonville also use services within the local economy.

When these are added to the direct and indirect aviation related activities, the total jobs generated are estimated at approximately 1,300.

A reader in Alberta, Quebec or Nova Scotia might say “Why should I care about a problem in Toronto?” The Buttonville situation is a symptom of an intensifying problem across Canada. Since there is no government direction or plan for GA airport infrastructure, decisions are being made based on local politics.

Edmonton City Council recently voted to close the City Centre airport (they want to reduce to one runway now and work toward closing the airport in the future – a death sentence for sure).

Longueuil City Council voted to ban all piston aircraft at St. Hubert during certain hours, including the entire day on Sundays (the airport cannot remain viable with these sorts of restrictions – a death sentence for sure).

Halifax International is the only airport in the area, ever since GA was banned from Shearwater. The FBOs got together recently and inflicted a prohibitive ramp fee, regardless of fuel or other services purchase, which effectively bars our sector from Halifax, and the airport authority does not appear to be interested in intervening.

There are examples elsewhere to indicate that GA is less welcome than ever in Canada’s major cities. Neither the provincial nor federal government have intervened in any of these cases.

COPA is working hard to try to stem the tide of restrictions and closures but no matter how hard we try we are normally seen as representing rich boys with toys. This issue is not isolated to Personal Aviation, and that is why I have not referred to PA to this point in this article.

What is needed is for commercial interests to join in the effort to convince the governments to get involved and develop a plan for the GA airport infrastructure. It is in their best interest. Whether it is to off-load from the major airports, provide feeder airports for the airlines or train personnel for the cockpits and maintenance facilities, these airports have critical roles to play in the viability of commercial air transportation. GA airports in major cities should not be closed until an alternative, long-term solution is in place.

Is GA going to die? The path we are on certainly indicates that this is the case. As the system deteriorates, we will see a major shift away from GA as a mode of travel in Canada.

Unless action is taken soon, significant events such as the closure of Buttonville, Edmonton City Centre and severe restrictions at St. Hubert and other airports will come to pass. As we all know, once an airport closes it is virtually impossible to reopen it or to open another airport anywhere nearby.

Derek Sifton told me that the family is not giving up on aviation. They have considerable expertise in airport management and have a great team at Toronto Airways that they would like to employ in the GA airport management business, either in the Toronto area or elsewhere.

Perhaps development of the Pickering lands is the answer after all, but from my perspective this can only be a viable solution for GA if it is developed so that the GA portion of the airport, including flight training and recreational flying, is compatible with airline operations in the long term.

In my opinion, the best way to start is to review the National Airports Policy with a view to providing direction for a viable system of airports, including those serving GA. But the need in the Toronto is urgent and cannot wait for the time it will take to do a proper review of the policy.

The various levels of government should meet with all aviation interests in the Toronto area and develop a plan for the eventual closure of Buttonville. The goal of this effort should be to have a sufficient number of GA airports to accommodate the existing demand plus the anticipated population growth and consequent demand for GA airport capacity in the area. COPA stands ready to help.

In my opinion, the need for this work is urgent. If this does not occur, we will see the death of GA.