News / Toronto

Pearson wants funding, federal help to turn airport into ‘mega hub’

Pearson is appealing for federal assistance to solve the traffic woes that clog area highways, and eliminate backlogs at security checkpoints and customs.

The report calls for Ottawa to invest heavily to eliminate frustrating backlogs at security screening. While more than half of travellers at Pearson have to wait 20 minutes or longer to get through security, most passengers at Heathrow in England are whisked through in under 5 minutes.

Torstar News Service Order this photo

The report calls for Ottawa to invest heavily to eliminate frustrating backlogs at security screening. While more than half of travellers at Pearson have to wait 20 minutes or longer to get through security, most passengers at Heathrow in England are whisked through in under 5 minutes.

OTTAWA—Toronto’s Pearson International Airport — already Canada’s busiest — is on track to become an elite “mega hub” but it’s going to take federal investments to help make it happen, a new report says.

The operators of Pearson are appealing for assistance to solve the traffic woes that clog area highways and, within the terminals, new funding to eliminate backlogs at security checkpoints and customs and immigration inspections.

And they want Ottawa to rethink visa demands that currently deter some international travellers from using Toronto to make connections.

The report, prepared for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, argues that those investments will pay off, putting Pearson in position to capitalize on growing air travel and double its annual passenger traffic to 80 million a year by 2035.

The report, titled “Growing Canada with a Mega Hub Airport,” will be released Thursday at a Canadian Club of Toronto event featuring Howard Eng, CEO of the airport authority, and Ben Smith, president, passenger airlines, at Air Canada.

It says Pearson has the potential to join the ranks of London’s Heathrow, Los Angeles International and Dubai, so-called mega hub airports characterized by high passenger volumes and a wide selection of international connections.

“Mega hubs are becoming increasingly important in facilitating routes and global trade,” the report says.

Already Pearson creates 332,000 direct and indirect jobs and is responsible for 6.3 per cent of Ontario’s economic output.

“Those impacts could be bigger if Toronto Pearson can seize its opportunity and develop into a mega hub,” the report said, predicting that employment could double.

“The economic prosperity of city-regions is inextricably linked to their connectivity to the rest of the world,” it says.

But the report, which was obtained by Torstar News Service, cautions that there is a “limited window” for Pearson to develop into a mega hub.

And it underscores several big hurdles to achieving that status, starting with the clogged roads around the airport and poor transit access to what is already the second largest employment zone in the country.

The airport authority has been pushing for a regional transit hub on airport property that would be served by buses, airport express trains, and regional services to move passengers and employees from across the region.

To make that a reality, the airport authority is urging Ottawa to support regional transit systems by cost-sharing on their expansion plans.

Inside the airport, the report echoes past calls for Ottawa to invest heavily to eliminate frustrating backlogs at security screening. While more than half of travellers at Pearson have to wait 20 minutes or longer to get through security, most passengers at Heathrow are whisked through in under 5 minutes.

“The longer the wait, the less attractive it is to fly through Toronto Pearson,” the report says.

“There are now insufficient funds to support a world-class security screening process, which requires investment in additional personnel and new, innovative screening processes and technologies,” the report says.

It calls for up to $50 million in new federal funding, backed by a $30 million investment by the airport, to hire more staff and install improved screening checkpoints to get wait times under 10 minutes.

The report says another $5 million is needed to ease backlogs for arriving travellers at customs and immigration checkpoints, saying that funding has not kept up here either.

Finally, it asks Ottawa to reconsider requirements for visas and electronic travel authorizations for passengers who are only passing through the airport.

The report urges Ottawa to follow the examples in Europe, the Middle East and Asia that do not require such paperwork to simply transit through an airport unless a traveller is from a high-risk country.

“Connecting passengers are vitally important for global airline networks and mega hub competitiveness,” the report says.

Ironically, the report comes as federal cabinet ministers ponder a sell-off of Canada’s big airports to help raise billions of dollars to help fund the infrastructure program.

Like Pearson, many of the airports across the country are managed by not-for-profit authorities. But private investors are keen to get a slice of the action, lured by the promise of a stable long-term return from running the airports. But there are concerns that a private sector profit motive would hit travellers in the pocketbook.

The federal government commissioned Credit Suisse to analyze the options. Sources tell the Star that the report has been submitted to government and its findings are being evaluated.

By the Numbers—Pearson International Airport in 2015

  • 443,000 flights.
  • 41 million passengers, expected to rise to 44 million this year.
  • Flights to 180 destinations worldwide.
  • Busy cargo hub that facilitates export of Canadian goods, such as $79 million in live Atlantic lobster and $1.7 billion in diamonds.
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