"Do No Harm" really means doing no harm to Toronto's waterfront
As the site of my first job on Bay Street more than 20 years ago, it was enjoyable to be back in the updated confines of First Canadian Place yesterday to speak to a Toronto Region Board of Trade luncheon.
The topic wasn’t about finance, or restarting Canada’s innovation economy, which are the kinds of topics that I’m normally asked to discuss. This time it was the proposal by Porter Airlines to bring new Bombardier CS-100 jets to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. As Chairman of the Toronto Port Authority, the owner and operator of Billy Bishop, the agency will have a say in Porter’s new business plan.
The room was made up of a great cross-section of people from all walks of the Toronto business community: Accenture, Aon, RBC Financial Group, Rogers Communications and so forth. Plus some folks with a particular interest in the topic, such as members of Toronto City Council, Bombardier, Porter Airlines and WestJet Airlines, to name a few. A handful of my “anti” friends were also in attendance (see prior representative posts “Were you compared to a Nazi today?” Apr 8-13 and “When lobby groups overspin” July 8-10), as is always the case whenever the airport is up for discussion and there’s a microphone nearby.
The goal of the presentation was simple, as complicated as the issues at play are.
First, there are regulatory developments which will have a real impact on Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, regardless of the ultimate decision made by Toronto City Council on the commercial jet topic. Second, there was the need to separate the reality from the myths in terms of some of the key facts that are most relevant to the TPA’s consideration of Porter’s Proposal. And third, to give the business community and broader public audience a sense of the lens though which the TPA will review the Proposal should it be approved by Toronto City Council in December.
The TPA has a positive economic impact on the Toronto Region, it is profitable, and it not only pays millions in taxes and royalties to the City and Ottawa each year, it also saved taxpayers $10 million when the City of Toronto partnered with it to install its utility mains into our new pedestrian tunnel project.
The airport has become very popular, and the TPA and Federal Government have tried to keep up with passenger expectations in the wake of the successful rebirth of Toronto’s downtown air hub. Since 2005, annual commercial passenger loads have increased from less than 25,000 to two million. That positive public response renewed the interest of Air Canada, and put Billy Bishop on the radar screen of Continental Airlines.
Porter has thrived, with the strong financial support of several North American private equity investors, including Edgestone Capital Partners and the $60 billion OMERS pension plan.
Porter’s popularity with passengers has driven the airport’s outstanding growth, making it one of Canada’s 10 busiest airports. Although former Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton and the 1983 Toronto City Council required a ban on non-medevac jets at Billy Bishop, things have progressed in the aviation industry. With the dramatic changes in engine and aircraft technology, Porter believes the time has come to review this commercial jet ban.
As the airport’s operator, the TPA is waiting for City Council, as the elected municipal body and the party which required the jet ban back in 1983, to decide whether or not Porter’s proposal is worthy of pursuit.
It is too early to tell what they’ll do, although based upon their historical voting records on issues involving the airport, between 11 and 12 of the City’s 45 elected representatives are guaranteed to oppose anything that doesn’t involve turning the airport back to the bog that is was before Billy Bishop was opened in 1939. That means that about 33 or 34 voting members are truly interested in distilling all of the information that goes into their decision. Not to mention the interest of the passengers who use the airport, plus the 5,700 people whose jobs rely on Porter and Billy Bishop for their livelihood.
That 85% of Torontonians believe Billy Bishop is an asset to the City, and 60% are in favour of jets (with 37% opposed – a third of whom want to close the airport completely) is interesting, and may factor into Council’s final decision.
In 1983, when the Tripartite Agreement among the federal government, the city and the TPA banning non-medevac jets was signed, thousands of cars still ran on leaded gas. Many mufflers didn’t have catalytic converters. We weren’t buying hybrid, electric or low-sulphur diesel vehicles.
Technology continues to change the transportation industry for the better, all industries in fact (as readers of this blog well know), and airport operators have to be opened-minded when it comes to new aircraft technology. The current Bombardier Q400 is a perfect example of how far aviation technology has evolved since the Tripartite Agreement was originally signed. Air Canada’s DC-9 fleet, which was state of the art when the jet ban was proposed in 1983, is a now seen as a gas-guzzling, emission pig of an aircraft that is worthless to anyone on our Continent other than a niche junkyard proprietor. If the Bombardier CS-100 really is as quiet as a Q400 turboprop, uses 20% less fuel than other short haul aircraft and generates ~50% less emissions that current jets, it is hard to ignore a definite Canadian success story. Philip Preville makes this very point in his current Canadian Business Magazine piece; have a read.
As I looked out at the audience during my speech, a couple of anti-jet folks were tweeting their disbelief regarding the merit of these advances in aviation technology. Perhaps they don’t see the irony in using handset technology that wasn’t envisioned when the airport’s commercial jet ban was put in place in 1983, as they argue that Bombardier’s new aviation technology is an industrial unicorn. During the Q&A session, one even read his prepared question off his smartphone. It might have been fun to ask him what he would have done had it still been 1983, and there was no such device to use for crib notes, but good manners prevailed.
The NO Jets headliners seem to be very passionate and engaged folks, with some gifts in the black arts of strategic messaging and public affairs. In fact, they are lucky to have some professional digital marketing folks running the campaign; it shows, and that’s a compliment. That their self-described “young” leader is drawn from the ranks of condo owners who live closest to the airport is either relevant or not to his engagement on the topic. More important are the essential facts and perspectives that serve as the foundation being reviewed by City Staff and their consultants right now, no matter what side you might be on — or no side at all.
In that regard, there were some higher profile facts and myths to deal with in the middle of the speech. Here they are in summary form:
#1: Jets already fly from Billy Bishop, as the Tripartite Agreement specifically permits jet flights for medical evacuation purposes. The Ornge service will fly about 100 jets in or out of the airport this year, and they’ll attract fewer complaints from the airport’s neighbours, by percentage, than Ornge’s helicopter fleet.
#2: For 30 years, and for at least 20 more, the Tripartite Agreement has limited the amount of noise the airport can generate each year, as determined by something called the NEF 25 noise contour, which caps noise generation based upon the airport’s busiest 21 days each year.
#3: Billy Bishop is closed to private and commercial flights between 11:00 p.m. and 6:45 a.m. This rule mitigates the airport’s impact on its neighbours, it’s been in place for 30 years, and it’s not going to change. Moreover, the NEF 25 further reduces the impact of Billy Bishop on its neighbours even when the airport is open, during the key “quiet hours” of 6:45- 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 -11:00 p.m.
One commercial aircraft landing at 10:05 p.m. has the same hit to the airport’s annual noise envelope as 16.7 landings during the middle of the day. As such, TPA rules require that carriers set schedules that do not disturb our neighbours at bedtime.
#4 : Billy Bishop has only 7 planned commercial movements during these shoulder periods, and none between 11:00 pm and 6:45 a.m. Compare that to Pearson, which has just under 100 overnight commercial take-offs and landings while Billy Bishop is closed.
To give you some sense of the relatively minimal impact that Billy Bishop has on its neighbours, the people of Etobicoke, Midtown, North York and Don Mills are exposed to 45 times more commercial take-offs and landings at Pearson between 10:00 p.m. and 6:45 a.m., with far noisier aircraft, than Billy Bishop handles.
Whatever City Council decides on the jet proposal, Billy Bishop’s current late night solitude will not change.
Fact #5 [slides 3, 4: Flight Paths: Billy Bishop and Toronto Pearson]: Billy Bishop is capacity and slot constrained. LaGuardia, Newark and Washington National airports have no available slots at the present time, either.
It is up to Porter to decide whether it wants to use an existing slot to fly to Los Angeles rather than somewhere else. That’s how it is done at other slot constrained airports around the world, and those are business decisions for each airline to consider.
Being slot constrained doesn’t mean that new commercial slots are off the table forever, but under current operating patterns, our existing complement of privates, commercial planes and medevac helicopters is unlikely to provide room for additional commercial slots over the next few years.
Whatever City Council decides on the jet proposal, Billy Bishop’s current flight paths won’t change for the worse. When you compare Billy Bishop’s flight paths to that of Pearson’s, you can see how modest its impact is on the residents of Toronto.
Fact #6 : When folks worry about an increase in air traffic as a result of Porter’s Proposal, no matter what happens at City Council on the jet front, air movements at Billy Bishop have dropped dramatically given systemic changes in the private aviation sector across North America. As you see in the slide, Billy Bishop saw a huge reduction in movements long before Porter’s arrival at Billy Bishop, while Medevac use has actually grown.
Fact #7 : Although I see in the media that WestJet is looking to bring their planes to Billy Bishop, we’ve heard nothing directly.
The TPA would love it if WestJet would expose more travellers to the delights of our award-winning operation. The challenge with WestJet’s submission to City Council is that it is unclear if their aircraft comply with our strict noise guidelines. At this point, the Porter’s Bombardier CS-100 aircraft do appear to comply, which needs to be certified by Transport Canada; and if they don’t, Porter’s Proposal can’t proceed.
The existing ICAO noise rules have mitigated the airport’s impact on its neighbours for the past 30 years, and there’s no desire to weaken them in the name of competition. West Jet is encouraged to buy planes that comply with these tough noise rules, just as Porter and Air Canada have done.
But asking for access for 737s that may not comply, to land on runways that may need even more length than Porter has proposed for the C-series, via commercial slots that WestJet has never shown an interest in previously, knowing there are currently no additional commercial slots available…. At best, it’s wishful thinking.
Fact #8 : In May 2002, the late Allan Sparrow, the former head of the anti-airport lobby group Community Air, was reported in the Toronto Star as predicting that Porter’s arrival would cause property values to plummet as much as 25%, and jeopardize some $20 billion in waterfront redevelopment.
But what actually happened?
The redevelopment went ahead just the same, and Waterfront condo values rose more than 70% between 2003 and 2013, mirroring the rise in average home prices across Toronto. In fact, condos prices in the C1 market rose 10% more than C8, even though C1 is closer to the airport.
Here are some of the key tests by which the TPA will review the Porter Proposal should it be approved by City Council; in no particular order:
– Maintaining the 1983 Noise Restrictions
– Better Slot Utilization – not Necessarily More Flights
– No Negative Impact On The Environment
– Livability For Our Neighbours
– Improving Vehicle Traffic Flows
– The Business Case
– Growing Toronto’s Economy
These are not statements of hope. They are just some of the tests the TPA will bring to bear on Porter’s CS-100 jet proposal, should City Council decide it is worthy of further consideration.
During the Q&A session, the head honcho of NoJetsToronto (which says it supports Billy Bishop just the way it is; although NJT also receives vocal support from CommunityAir members, a group whose goal is to completely close the airport) remarked that our powerpoint seemed to be directed at many of his arguments against Porter’s Proposal.
That wasn’t by design, but if his arguments are specious or otherwise fail simple testing, that’s not my fault.
There may well be many valid arguments against the Porter Proposal, but this issue shouldn’t turn on fairytale suggestions that home prices will collapse, that the TPA wants to ruin Lake Ontario, that the harbour will be closed to sailboats or commercial shipping, or that better utilization of Billy Bishop’s existing 202 commercial slots is going to ruin the way of life of the people who knowingly bought a condo near an airport.
You heard those arguments 10 years ago, when Porter announced its interest in launching at Billy Bishop, and the predicted doomsday never came.
The TPA’s task is to ensure that the airport’s operations fit into, and not dominate, Toronto’s lively Waterfront and South Core area. The airport is a success, and that success deserves to be embraced. But, as the airport’s operator, we recognize that we have to get this right, while doing no harm. Which means exactly what you think it means.
(disclosure: this post, like all blogs, is an Opinion Piece, and as a personal view should not be taken to represent the views of the TPA board, management or the Federal government)