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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.


  1. Well, that is definitely thinking out of the box. Kudos to you for that.

    I can see one huge objection to that plan, however. If you know even one birder, you know that the Spit has become, over the decades of its expansion into the lake, one of the main "flyways" for migrating birds in eastern North America. This is because, to a finch-sized songbird, lopping off even two miles from a 25-mile lake crossing is a literal life-saving choice. At the end of the Spit is the Don Valley, leading north to summer habitats. Putting an airport smack at the jumping-off point for tens of thousands of birds might be considered ill-advised.

    "Convenient" for some in this sense might be less so for others (sex tourism in Thailand is "convenient" for appalling white guys, after all), and there is a mostly empty terminal at Pearson that could handle the traffic of BBTCA now and then some.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Rhys. I agree the birds are definitely a concern. I wonder what the ideas are from the folks that want to build a wind energy field there. I did read somewhere that the existing bird sanctuary in Tommy Thompson Park is having some serious issues with damage to the trees from these birds. I'll try and find the sources for this info as I cannot back it up yet.

  2. Hi there. This seems a nifty, practical idea and solution, birds notwithstanding. However, as you alluded to in another post, it seems the Toronto Harbour Commission previously drafted a similar plan in the 70s:

    Great minds think alike? ;) I've always wondered why Downsview isn't repurposed into a regional airport, like Chicago Midway.

  3. While it may seem like a good idea there are a multitude of logistical problems to address. A build out of rapid transit such as an LRT, not just bus service, to connect it to Union Station and the Danforth subway line. The whole of the wildlife issue is much more than a "flyway". It didn't become a flyway, that has always existed. It is a nesting ground now as well as habitat for coyotes and such.

    Growth or at least the desire for growth is the problem. I love the convenience of Porter but also see the need to limit it to the capability of the airport as it stands. Expanding capacity increases the inherent risks and the noise associated with it. Moving it out to the spit would only end up with the same issue arising. Build the airport such that it will generate sufficient revenues to support the cost of the infrastructure needed to service it and the associated costs of running the support services for it. Whatever capacity is created, it will be consumed and ultimately create the same debate over traffic, noise and all the other concerns of running a major airport so close to a downtown.

    Downsview would be fraught with all sorts of problems. Imagine the resistance to suddenly being subject to the traffic from the 9th busiest airport over your home and on your streets? Downsview is decommissioned as a military base and used now only by Dehavilland for test flights.