Rob Ford and Adam Vaughan look over emails about Porter at city council, May 7, 2013.
Porter Airlines' controversial plan to fly jets out of the island airport is a step closer to becoming a reality, despite objections from local councillors who say the planes could ruin the waterfront.
Last month the airline asked the city to agree to lifting the jet ban and extending the main runway at Billy Bishop Airport. On Tuesday, council decided to study the idea, in a vote of 29-15.
The decision was welcome news for Mayor Rob Ford, who has been a vocal Porter booster in recent weeks. During the council debate he piled booklets on his desk that he said contained thousands of emails from residents who want the boutique airline to expand, and afterwards, he shook hands with the company's CEO, Robert Deluce, on the council floor.
"It's a good beginning," Ford told reporters of the decision. "I'm glad that we're moving in the right direction, it's going to create jobs, it's great for tourism... It's what people want."
Deluce said he was pleased with the vote, and hopes that his airline will soon be able to use jets to service cities too far afield for its current turbo-prop fleet to reach.
"We're really gratified by the strong support of almost two-thirds of council," he said. "We look forward to moving to the next step and being able to provide some of those new destinations, eventually, at the affordable prices. But the study first, and hopefully an approval in due course."
The study does not give Porter the right to use jets at Billy Bishop yet, something that would require the consent of all three signatories to the tripartite agreement that governs the airport: the city, the Toronto Port Authority, and the federal government.
But council's decision green lights a preliminary review that will determine, among other things, the potential economic impacts of expanding the airport to accommodate jets, the suitability of the CS100 planes the airline intends to fly, and potential passenger volumes that would result.
Opponents to the jet plan were disappointed with the outcome of the vote but did not admit defeat. They believe approval of the study doesn't mean council will agree to make changes to the tripartite agreement later this year.
"We're looking forward to a rigorous report," said Anshul Kapoor of No Jets T.O., a community group recently formed to stop Porter's expansion plans. "Councillors left the door open to an open conversation, and we're okay with that."
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who opposes the jet plan, successfully moved a series of motions that he believes limited the scope of any potential expansion of the airport. They precluded the study from considering any changes to the airport's noise restrictions, or any encroachment on nearby parkland and the western shipping channel.
Vaughan is confident the restrictions will safeguard the waterfront, but still vowed to block the jet plan from going ahead.
"Anybody who thinks this is a go today ought to check their airline ticket, they're on a ticket to nowhere," he said.
Councillor Pam McConnell, whose ward encompasses the Toronto Islands, was also hoping council would reject the study, but said it was only a matter of time before her colleagues see the light.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't just shut it down because I didn't think that we needed any more information," she said. "But on the other hand, this allows Torontonians to really find out what the impact of jets on the island are."
"I remain very optimistic that councillors, when given the kind of knowledge and information that I have, will come to similar conclusions."
The results of the initial study will be tabled at Ford's executive committee on July 3. From there, it will likely be sent on to council later the same month.
Council would then be asked to commission a second phase of the study, which would produce staff recommendations on whether or not to consent to the use of jets. A final council vote would come in October or November.
The initial phase of the study will require the hiring of outside experts, some of whom will have to be given sole-sourced contracts because the tight timelines involved don't allow for the usual procurement process. Porter had committed to cover the estimated $225,000-275,000 cost but council voted to request that the Toronto Port Authority pick up the bill instead.
The second phase is expected to cost between $800,000 and $1 million, and is currently unfunded. The city is hoping that the Toronto Port Authority will commit to funding that part as well.