Should Pickering airport be built? Yes
Airports are business magnets and regional economic catalysts. Pearson’s 2016 economic impact study shows that it directly or indirectly contributes 330,000 jobs and $56 billion CAN to the region’s economy annually. Many high-value, aviation-dependent businesses have located near the airport, including 60 Canadian and international headquarters of Fortune 500 corporations.
With passenger traffic at Pearson rising rapidly, from 38.6 to 49.4 million between 2014 and 2018, constraints are on the horizon. Forecasts have the airport’s passengers expanding to 85 million by 2037 assuming landside access problems are solved, much less than the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA’s) forecasted air traffic demand.
Some have suggested that future GTA demand can be met by spreading growing air traffic over 10 regional airports throughout southern Ontario. This will not work. Most of these are too far from the GTA’s key travel origins/destinations; some prohibit jet aircraft while others cannot expand their infrastructure.
Moreover, most additional air capacity is provided by regional airports west of Toronto, whereas rapid growth in demand is occurring to the east, with air travellers from Durham and York taking 90-plus minutes to reach Pearson during peak hours, further congesting Toronto’s roadways while exacerbating air pollution.
Nor does aviation economics efficiently operate when air traffic is sprinkled over numerous small regional airports. Scale, agglomeration, and network effects as well as major economic impacts become manifest only when commercial air traffic is concentrated in a limited number of larger airports. Here, Richard Florida’s research shows larger airports disproportionately boost metropolitan business revenues per capita.
To optimize economic benefits, while satisfying long-term aviation demand, Toronto needs a second major airport that is more than a mere reliever. It should be planned from the get-go as a state-of-the-art infrastructure asset to serve as a dual economic engine along with Pearson to propel the region’s future economy.
The airport should possess sufficient size and route networks supported by an expanding, underserved market and relatively quick surface access to downtown Toronto. Enough airport land must be available to accommodate long-range runways and future aeronautical growth as well as adjacent land for aviation-oriented economic development.
The Pickering Lands, acquired decades ago by the federal government for Toronto’s second major commercial airport, more than satisfies these conditions. Yet, strong opposition to the airport is led by an articulate, well-organized, and vocal anti-aviation group, Land Over Landings. They argue that the Pickering Lands should be dedicated long-term to sustainable agriculture, providing, among others, two primary reasons: negative environmental impacts via aircraft greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and regional loss of prime farmland.
Few realize aviation’s relative contribution to GHG emissions is small, estimated by scientific bodies at only 1.5 to 2.5 per cent of global human-made emissions. The aviation industry is striving to reduce that percentage further, despite aviation’s forecasted growth. Agriculture, conversely, contributes manyfold this percentage.
Climate change, moreover, is a global issue. Given approximately 18,000 commercial airports operating worldwide (many, like Pearson, expanding), with China’s flights alone expected to increase from 0.6 to 1.6 billion annually within two decades, Pickering’s effects on climate change would be negligible.
Allegations of disappearing prime cropland is another red herring. Canada’s Census of Agriculture shows that southern Ontario’s cropland actually grew by 130,755 acres between 2011 and 2016. Despite urbanization, Durham added 6,000-plus acres of cropland during this period.
In essence, regional cropland is abundant, with 3.4 million acres in use in southern Ontario. Potential loss of cropland by converting the Pickering Lands to an airport would be a drop in this bucket. The new airport, in fact, could move regional cropland up the agricultural value chain by facilitating sales of higher-priced fresh products to distant customers. And, the difference in regional economic impact of a successful airport vs. cropland use is hardly comparable.
Leading global city regions (London, New York, Tokyo) have at least two major airports powering their economies. I am convinced that a proper business case will demonstrate that Toronto needs a second major airport to stay abreast with its competitors in future decades.
The Pickering Lands offer a remarkable opportunity for its optimization. Should this opportunity be squandered, either through politics, protest, or endless dickering over when Pearson’s capacity will be exceeded, its immense potential economic benefits will go elsewhere.
John D. Kasarda is a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and president of Aerotropolis Business Concepts LLC. He may be reached at .