Will Toronto have Canada’s riskiest airport?

The Island airport is one of only two in the country framed by water, making it subject to a unique set of hazards that are further complicated by its proposed expansion, says the Greater Waterfront Coalition

It’s a distinction that few civic leaders would welcome: if Porter Airlines’ proposal to expand Billy Bishop Airport to handle jetliners goes ahead, this city might be home to Canada’s most dangerous major airport.

A new study released by the Greater Waterfront Coalition (GWC) on Monday, July 6, lays out a wide range of safety concerns. How big must the marine exclusion zones be if the runway is extended into the harbour and jets are allowed? Will jets, which descend at a lower angle than the turboprops now used by Porter, come too close to boats to be safe? What about the effects of “wake turbulence”? Will the “wingtip vortices” and air disturbances created during takeoffs and landings endanger canoeists and kayakers nearby? 

And, most urgently, is there enough room for a pilot’s missed approach given the new condo towers going up, and more planned and proposed, near the airport?

“It’s our position that these issues need to be studied by independent experts,” says Ed Hore, the coalition’s coordinator. PortsToronto has enlisted its own experts to assess safety issues related to the proposed expansion, but the coalition says concerns should be assessed by an arm’s-length organization. 

Out of the nine busiest airports in the country, the Toronto Islands facility is one of only two framed by a large body of water (the much bigger Vancouver airport is the other), which makes it subject to a unique set of hazards that are further complicated by the proposed expansion.

Current Transport Canada regulations recommend that airport runways as long as the one proposed for the Island airport include approach lights. The Island airport is the only major airport in the country that doesn’t conform to that recommendation. PortsToronto’s expansion also includes no such lights – a significant concern of the coalition since Billy Bishop is highly susceptible to fog. 

Birds pose another risk. With its proximity to extensive waterbird habitat, the Island airport already experiences far more than its share of bird strikes.

The introduction of jets would exacerbate this hazard the enclosed engines of jets are more susceptible than propellers to damage from bird strikes. 

Then there’s the low margin of error for pilots flying in and out of the airport. 

In 2013, Transport Canada revoked its approval for instrument-guided landings – used by pilots in fog, snow and other low-visibility conditions – at the facility because of the many condo and office towers in the approach area. Documentation specifically cited the “safety of the travelling public” as the reason for the decision. 

Porter now appears to have re-secured approval for instrument landings. It seems clear, though, that the present situation skirts the very edge of safety and that the addition of large, hard-to-manoeuvre jets would push it over.

Scenarios involving compromised takeoffs are equally harrowing. A jet taking off with a non-functioning engine, as might be the case with a bird strike, cannot climb well, and pilot control could be reduced. 

The coalition calculates that a jet taking off over the harbour with a disabled engine might reach an altitude of only 70 metres – just over half the height of the Royal York Hotel – by the time it reached the port lands at the harbour’s eastern edge. If you think that’s worryingly low for a heavily loaded crippled plane in a densely populated downtown area, you’re not alone.

The safety of other waterfront users is yet another concern. Besides jet blast, there’s a real risk of contact between low-flying jets and the masts of sailboats or tall ships, especially if pilots choose lower-than-

recommended approach angles or are experiencing reduced control, loss of visibility or turbulence. 

But perhaps the greatest danger is that these issues may never get the independent, no-strings-attached, in-depth review the coalition is calling for, although PortsToronto is promising its study in late fall. 

Spokesperson Deborah Wilson says, “The Master Planning Exercise will report on many of the items raised by the Greater Waterfront Coalition using facts, empirical data and tested methodology.”

Wilson stresses that the study “is intended to inform the discussion on qualified jet aircraft operations and is not an endorsement of the Porter proposal.”

Study or no study, two things seem clear: Porter’s proposal brings with it a unique set of risks. And if there are ways to make the whole venture safer, no one has yet mentioned them.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

Updated Monday, July 20, 12:23 pm. An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that there were more bird strikes by planes at the Island airport in May than have occurred at Pearson over the last 11 years. The numbers were provided by the Greater Waterfront Coalition at its briefing but the group has been unable to substantiate them after further inquiries from NOW. 

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