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Friday 26 April 2013

Flight Paths and Proximity for the Toronto Island Airport Locations

Living on the waterfront gives me a bit of exposure to the flight paths used by aircraft using the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. I can see where many of the planes fly. So I did a bit of research to get some additional information on the most common areas the aircraft fly over.

I had heard from some friends that island residents and boat owners under these flight paths experience some kind of oily precipitate that covers leaves a slick, dirty layer on their homes and water craft. I am not sure if this is from the planes using the Island Airport or not.

I also read some pilot forums and there were a number of comments about some of the restriction and cautions surrounding the current airport location: city core, residential areas, etc

The comments got me curious about what these flight paths looked like.

Finding flight paths is not an easy task. I suspect that over the past dozen years or so, access to these materials have become a bit more restricted. I am sensitive to this possible fact so I took the flight path info I did find and I translated it into much 'fuzzier' versions with much less definition. I overlaid the resulting images onto a Google Earth pic of the Inner Harbour. The results are nowhere near exact and quite rough but they give a pretty good visualization over where the aircraft are flying.

Here is the image of the current airport. The East and West paths are the ones most commonly used.

As you can see, the East end of the Toronto Islands (Wards and Algonquin Islands), where people live are pretty much right under the flight paths.
The paths to the runways also seem to be pretty restricted.

Here is a similar depiction of what the paths could look like if the airport was to relocated to the end of the Leslie Spit (Outer Harbour East Headland). It assumes a similar layout and approach geometries which is not likely but let's assume this as a worst-case scenario. 

The flight lines really seem to be nowhere near anyone and the paths that the aircraft would take means the rear, noisier ends of the planes would rarely point towards any residential areas.

So I combined the images and added some (approximate!) distances to see how these two locations stack up in terms of proximity to people.

The new location is only slightly closer to the island residences and a fair amount of land mass in between the people and the airport as opposed to the existing airport which has about 2 km of open water.

I would assume a highly qualified airport designer would be able to really leverage this location for everyone involved.


Airport relocation was considered in the 70's

As I mentioned in my original post, the idea of relocating the Toronto Island airport to the end of the Leslie Spit (Outer Harbour East Headland) is not entirely new.

Over four years ago I had a brief email exchange with the Toronto Port Authority after I suggested the idea of moving the airport. Lisa Raitt was head of the TPO at the time, and her fantastic reply (excerpt below) gave some great background... despite the fact that I addressed my original email to 'Mr. Rait" :)

One thing that has definitely changed since the early 70's is the topology of the end of the Leslie Spit. I found this historical image on the website for the Toronto Portlands Company and it shows the Outer Harbour East Headland as a simple breakwater.

The effort required back then to relocate the airport to that location would have been huge. It would certainly have been much more work than relocating it now. And now we have the decrepit grain elevators to knock down to use them for landfill. I suspect they were full of, you know, grain, in 1971.

----------  excerpt of message ----------

In the late 1960's and early 1970's the Toronto Harbour Commission (now known at the Toronto Port Authority) proposed a new site for the Island Airport - the Leslie Street Spit as it was being constructed by the THC.  The site was thought to meet the airport's basic parameters - close proximity to the city centre with room for expansion; flight paths sufficiently removed from residential areas; and operations away from aircraft on approach to Pearson.  Several years of uncertainty ensued, as the fate of the Island Airport hinged on a number of multi-level government investigations conducted in the 1970s.  All aspects of aviation and non-aviation use for the airport were examined but few recommendations were made.  But as time marched on, the discussion of moving the airport faded away.  Instead the federal government, City and THC entered into an agreement in 1983 which governs the operations of the Island Airport in its present location until 2033. 


Wednesday 24 April 2013

Moving the Toronto Island Airport

"The first thing you need to do, when getting out of a hole, is to stop digging."
According to the web, Will Rogers is credited with saying something along these lines.

I was involved in a discussion today regarding one of my clients and my recommendations included they do just that.  It got me thinking about the current situation that the Toronto Port Authority is in with the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. I have been planning to resurrect my blog for a while now and planning to move it to a better platform. I have also been planning to publish a post like this for a couple of years now. This is a great opportunity to accomplish all of these goals.

The airport has long been a thorn in the side of some waterfront residents due to noise, traffic, and the debacles surrounding the land links. (The Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport Wikipedia page gives a pretty good summary).

Since they started service at the airport, Porter Airlines has seen great success and undergone astounding growth and with the (re)addition of Air Canada flying out of the Island Airport, there are now hundreds of flights a day
There is clearly a real demand for a downtown airport. I live on the Toronto waterfront and I see the flights. I have flown Porter many times and I have experienced the convenience. For the record, I am not against the island airport. I think a smaller, downtown airport is a requirement for a major city. I don't personally find it too noisy. I do live a bit East of the facility though so it may be much louder at the West end of the quay.

Now Porter has announced they will be buying small commuter jet aircraft which will require the extension of the existing runway by about a football field on each end, extending into the lake and inner harbour. Assuming this goes through, and I suspect it will sooner or later, it will just be a matter of time before Air Canada add jets too.

The airport lands are very limited in terms of the area available for expansion. The location is also very close to shore. At what point does someone say that the current location is not adequate to satisfy the future needs of the facility? When does the "digging" stop?

I am proposing something that my father actually thought up at least ten years ago:
I am proposing that the Toronto City Airport be relocated.

Yes, relocated. Before millions are spent on extending the (single) runway. Before jets start taking off. before a major accident occurs and emergency services are unable to get to the island fast enough or evacuate the airport soon enough.

I understand that millions have already been spend on the current facility, just in the past 2 or 3 years. I also understand that millions more will be spent in the near future. It is also obvious that the capabilities of this location are limited. It is not too late to re-think the location and move the facility to a location that would provide room for growth and also provide a bit more distance from the waterfront residents and those living under the current flight paths.

The recommendation I am making is to relocate the airport to the end of the Leslie Spit, replacing the Tommy Thompson park and the current land reclamation landfill facility.

The next image is a bit what it could look like. I superimposed the current airport onto the end of the Leslie Spit (with some soccer fields replacing the current location just to show that land as available for parkland or other use) (thanks Google Earth!):

This location clearly has more space and can easily handle the additional runway length and possibly an additional runway. It also has a land link for transit, supplies, and emergency vehicles. There is considerably more distance from the waterfront residences and, although it is a bit closer to Toronto Island residents, the flight paths are no longer directly overhead.

I am no airport designer so I am sure someone with these skills could design a facility that even better addresses the issues. And I am sure they can design a facility that can be built out in stages, adding runways, taxiways, terminals, and support facilities as growth demands and as the landfill reclaims land.

 Here is a brief summary of the pros and cos, as I see them.


(These are the base assumptions I used while building the position)
  • Revitalizing the waterfront is a priority long term for all stakeholders.
  • A downtown airport is staying.
  • A land link is needed for the airport.
  • The current location is limiting growth due to size
  • The community near the current airport wants to limit its size and, in fact, get rid of it. They certainly do not want a land link.
  • A bridge was scheduled and canceled and the tunnel is not yet complete. A land link to the existing facility could still be used as the land is converted to some other purpose like parkland or bird sanctuary.
  • Tommy Thompson park is relatively unused and part of that area is actually a landfill.
  • The Portlands development plan does not intend to develop the Leslie Spit and Tommy Thompson park.
  • Development, at least residential, cannot really happen close to the water treatment plant, leaving long term access to the new airport site and related parking.

Benefits of relocation the Airport to the Leslie Spit:

  • Actual Land link allows supply and emergency vehicle access 
  • Room for parking and drop-off/pick-up near water treatment plant 
  • Further from residents, even after Portlands are developed 
  • Flight paths and runway positions can be designed to avoid residents 
  • Room to build a transit hub with links to TTC with future cross- or along-lake ferry docs possible. 
  • Current island location could be parkland or sports fields or a nature/bird preserve as Tommy Thompson Park is now. 
  • Open up beautiful sandy beach on current island airport location would become available. 
  • The tunnel link being built and existing ferry can be used for pedestrian access the newly opened part of the island


  • A lot of development has already taken place on the current airport that will need to be rebuilt.
  • Expensive. Moving an airport is less expensive than other large scale moves but it will still be extremely expensive.
  • Tommy Thompson park would be no more but that name could be given to a new park at the site of the old (existing) airport.
Moving the airport would provide much needed additional capacity as well as a brand new state of the art facility. The costs would be high but additional revenue could be garnered from the additional capacity. There are just too many benefits to not consider this as a viable future for the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.