Island airport: Deluce downed

After Libs squash plan to expand Billy Bishop airport, Porter opponents suggest closing it altogether

Luck may finally have run out for Robert Deluce. His blue-skying about expanding the runway at the Island airport to accommodate jets has officially been grounded.

The newly minted Liberal government signalled its intention to kill the plan during the election. But that looked to be in doubt until last Thursday, November 12, thanks to the Twitter musings of Transport Minister Marc Garneau suggesting the door had not been closed just yet. Garneau clarified in an official statement the next day that the Libs would not reopen the tripartite agreement governing operations of the airport. Phew.

Since founding Porter Airlines in February 2006, Deluce has had almost everything fall his way. He’s enjoyed a cozy relationship with PortsToronto, including a sweetheart deal and almost exclusive use of the airport. 

That winning streak seems to have come to an end, even while Deluce was being feted in Yorkville by Toronto Life last week as one of Toronto’s most influential people. He told the National Post that Porter would survive just fine, expansion or not, though it’s widely believed that his jets proposal was make-or-break for the little airline that could. 

Deluce’s political problems don’t end with Porter’s jets proposal. 

A likely overhaul of the PortsToronto board, which had been stacked with sympathetic Harper supporters, is imminent, adding fuel to talk from long-time Porter opponents that the time has come to close the airport altogether.

Porter’s official position is that the federal government should wait for city council to decide on Porter’s runway application and then “consider the wishes of the people of Toronto.” Deluce, a frequent visitor to City Hall, has been intensely lobbying councillors to get behind his proposal, which was first floated through the back door when Rob Ford was mayor. Unlike his predecessor, John Tory finds his hands effectively tied – he’s had to declare a conflict of interest since his son runs a commercial airline out of the Island airport.

Meanwhile, one of his deputies, Pam McConnell, in whose ward the airport is located, is openly suggesting abolishing the port authority, closing the airport and returning the land to green space. It’s a radical notion, but a not altogether implausible one. PortsToronto’s lease on the airport lands doesn’t run out until 2033. 

It’s possible that if PortsToronto were disbanded tomorrow, Deluce would be the only one who would miss it, McConnell argues. Apart from airport operations, she says, the time PortsToronto spends on industrial shipping traffic in the harbour is negligible. 

“This is just not an appropriate place for a commercial airport,” she says.

Under the Harper government, PortsToronto became a haven for Conservative backroom boys. Its board featured party faithful who’d raised funds for the Conservative cause or worked with leaders like Mike Harris, Jim Flaherty and Brian Mulroney. A former Ports CEO, pro-expansion Lisa Raitt, went on to become federal transport minister under Harper. All that worked well for Deluce, who has impeccable Conservative credentials of his own.

With the election of the Liberals, those Conservative ties at PortsToronto have become a liability. Two board positions are currently vacant, and with the new government making the appointments, it’s doubtful the new directors will be as accommodating to Porter as their predecessors. They might, for example, question why Porter is allowed to control a vast majority of the takeoff and landing slots at the Island airport, shutting out any effective competition.

Assuming Porter is allowed to remain on the Island, the port authority will soon be dealing with a much different relationship with Ottawa. No more sweetheart deals.

The the future of the Bombardier C-Series aircraft Deluce covets remains in doubt. The planes aren’t expected to be flying until 2016 at the earliest. Bombardier is literally billions of dollars in debt, and its stock price is plummeting. Quebec has recently committed $1 billion to help keep the manufacturer afloat, and Bombardier is pressing Ottawa for a substantial contribution as well. 

“We can now get back to the important work of revitalizing our waterfront,” says Councillor Joe Cressy. 

The current has shifted against Deluce, but he still has powerful friends with deep pockets.

With a file from Jonathan Goldsbie. | @nowtoronto

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