Pierre J. Jeanniot
Canadian Hall of Fame’s magazine “The Flyer”, Fall 2014 edition.
Mirabel Airport – A Failed Dream >>
Next year, 2015 will mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of Mirabel Airport – which may have gone down in history as one of the best examples of an ill-conceived project and chronic waste of tax-payers’ money.
Mirabel Airport became a source of great embarrassment which still lingers today.
In the late 1960’s – perhaps instilled by the euphoria of Expo ’67 – the air transport market was growing rapidly in the double digits. Projections of continued growth rates of this magnitude gave rise to concern that tremendous pressure would be put on Montreal’s Dorval airport.
The government of the day commissioned an important consulting firm to study the matter and propose what should be done to accommodate such rapidly growing traffic. Supersonic airplanes were on the horizon, and projects for developing such aircraft led to Concorde, which was built in Europe. Boeing was at the time also contemplating a supersonic airplane.
It was envisaged that, within a decade, hundreds of supersonic airplanes would be operating, and that the number of passengers would grow at the same double digit rate, possibly reaching over 50 million passengers a year.
The anticipated noise levels of hundreds of supersonic airplanes was naturally felt to be unacceptable to the population living close to Dorval, and the federal government insisted that a location be found to construct a new airport sufficiently away from the centre of Montreal.
I was approached at the time by a consulting firm which was working on what became the Mirabel project to participate in the proposed study.
I declined. I was highly suspicious of the linear projections of 12 percent growth a year continuing on indefinitely, as well as the number of supersonic aircraft that were projected to be built.
Air Canada gave a negative answer to the government regarding the potential construction of this new “super airport”.
From the start, it became increasingly obvious that the handling of the Mirabel project was deeply flawed.
Just as the Department of Transport was planning to build a “super airport” outside Montreal, other government bodies were negotiating bilateral agreements with various countries which required that more points of entry be granted for international flights arriving in Canada.
Indeed, shortly after the new airport opened at Mirabel, a large part of international traffic was allowed to land in Toronto without ever having to land in Mirabel.
Another major mis-calculation was over-estimating the growth of supersonic air travel. Studies at the time indicated that hundreds of aircraft of this type would be in operation, and that many would be landing in Montreal being the only point of entry for international travel.
In fact, as we know, Boeing decided not to build a supersonic transport, and Concorde only produced a handful of aircraft, none of which ever came to Montreal – or to Canada – on a regular basis.
The early 1970’s was the time of the first oil crisis: prices of fuel increased dramatically overnight in response to the creation of OPEC – and the growth of traffic to Canada plummeted. This combined with the opening of Toronto to international air traffic brought the growth of traffic to Montreal to a virtual standstill – if not a slight decrease.
In addition, the political emergence of Quebec’s nationalistic movement and its impact on decision-making heads of Quebec-based Anglophone businesses accelerated an exodus of head-offices to Toronto, which was becoming Canada’s main business centre. Traffic to Montreal suffered in consequence.
What’s more, Mirabel’s site in the lower Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal had been intended to serve not only Montreal but also Ottawa, the national capital. But no ground link was provided between Ottawa and Mirabel, other than short access roads to secondary roads; and no rail link was built to provide better access between Montreal, Ottawa and Mirabel.
The required vast network of express ways surrounding the “super airport” was never built. The dedication of international flights to Mirabel – while domestic and trans-border traffic continued to use Dorval – making the connection of passengers between these two airports highly impractical.
Construction of Montreal’s Mirabel “super airport” gave rise to a judicial saga which lasted more than forty years between the expropriated farmers of the Mirabel area numbering some three thousand and the Federal Government which had grossly over-estimated the size of the operational zone which would be required.
The area envisaged at the outset for the airport amounted to almost one hundred thousand acres of prime agricultural land. This land was expropriated in its entirety – but then largely given back or put up for sale in 2002.
The concept of Mirabel’s design was said to be revolutionary, in that it included no bridges giving direct access from the main terminal to the airplane. Reaching the airplane was via Passenger Transfer Vehicle, or PTV, which essentially moved passengers from the main terminal to the airplane – wherever that airplane was.
The opening of the airport in 1975 was equally unfortunate. The first flight landing in Mirabel from Ottawa carried the Minister of Transport, the Chairman of Air Canada, and a number of high level dignitaries. These VIPs were unable to disembark as planned, as the PTV which was to be used did not perform. After fifteen minutes of confusion, stairs were eventually brought to unload these important passengers – who then had to walk to the main terminal!
The problems with the PTV’s were easy to fix, and they are indeed still used at Dorval from time to time to transport passengers between the main terminal and off-gate aircraft.
Fortunately, the extensive redesign of airplanes and engines has very substantially reduced noise and gas emissions, and although one can assume that people living close to an airport will always complain, the environmental footprint of these new engines and airplanes was significantly reduced .
Dorval’s runway capacity may well be able to accommodate twice the volume of traffic it receives today – which is significantly below the one hundred million passengers a year projected by the Mirabel project.
In 2002, Mirabel stopped receiving passengers and all civil aviation flights were returned to Dorval airport, which was re-named “Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport” in honor, ironically, of the man who originated the idea to build Mirabel!
Today, Mirabel Airport houses a number of freight and aerospace industries, including helicopters – and of course, Bombardier – which finally provides some justification for its existence.
Pierre J Jeanniot
President & CEO, Jinmag Inc.
Director General Emeritus, IATA
Former President & CEO, Air Canada