Rob Ford made a surprise move in support of Porter Airlines on Tuesday, asking for a staff report that could pave the way for longer runways and jet planes at Billy Bishop Airport.
At a meeting of his executive committee, Ford unexpectedly added a motion to the agenda that directed the city manager to study Porter's request to amend the agreement that governs the airport. The airline is asking to be allowed to fly jets out of Billy Bishop, and to lengthen its main runway by 168 metres at each end.
Ford's motion requests information on the procedure to open the airport agreement, which is signed by the city, Toronto Port Authority, and the federal government, as well as a study of the potential economic impact of Porter's request and "other factors that should be considered by committee and council."
The executive committee will debate the motion Tuesday afternoon.
(UPDATE: Late Tuesday, the committee approved the study. But against Ford's wishes, it will go to council next month for the final green light. The mayor believed that the executive had the authority to commission the report, but city manager Joe Pennachetti said it would cost upwards of $200,000, and he needed full council approval to spend that much.)
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who staunchly opposes increased activity at the airport, was hardly shocked at Ford's motion.
"It's not a surprise at all. They've been angling for jets on the waterfront since before I entered politics," says Vaughan, whose ward encompasses the shoreline across from Billy Bishop.
The councillor firmly believes most Torontonians oppose Porter's plan and predicts it will be defeated if it ever gets to council.
He dismisses a recent poll that found 66.2 per cent of Torontonians support jets at the airport, claiming it was skewed because it was conducted by a firm with ties to Nick Kouvalis, Ford's former campaign manager.
"Contrary to the poll that was just done by Rob Ford's pollster, which was really more of a marketing campaign than a poll, I think people are extraordinarily concerned about the prospects of paving over Lake Ontario to land loud, noisy jets," says Vaughan.
According to a letter from Porter president and CEO Robert Deluce that was dated April 22 and attached to Ford's motion, the airline is seeking a final council decision on amending the tripartite agreement by July of 2013. Deluce says that would give the company time to make infrastructure changes to accommodate its new jet fleet, which it hopes to start taking delivery of in 2016.
But that timeline might be too aggressive, according to Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who sits on Ford's executive. He supports Porter's push, but he doubts a substantive report on the issue could be turned around so quickly. He recalls that the last time council debated Billy Bishop expansion it was a lengthy process.
"I don't think there's any way you're going to get a report in July. I went through the last debate and it took much longer than that," says Minnan-Wong.
"We want a complete report, we want all the facts. However long it takes to do that without wasting any time unnecessarily is what we should be doing."
A spokesperson for Porter did not immediately return a request for comment.
The future of the island airport has been a political hot button issue for years, but fresh debate erupted earlier this month when Porter announced its conditional purchase of up to 30 CS100 Bombardier jet planes from Bombardier.
Commercial jets are currently banned from Billy Bishop but the new fleet would allow the boutique airline to reach new destinations as far away as the west coast of North America and the Caribbean.
For Porter to fly them, the Toronto Port Authority, the city, and the federal government would all have to agree to reopening the tripartite agreement.
The airline wants only the CS100 model plane, which it describes as a super-quiet "whisper jet" to be granted an exemption from the jet ban. It is not seeking changes to current noise restrictions.