Squatting on 88,000 acres northwest of Montreal, Mirabel International Airport is the world’s largest and Canada’s newest airport, a futuristic $600-million wonder featuring a 215-foot control tower, a 24-hour, automated cargo operation, 12,000-foot runways and a quarter-mile long terminal building, capable of handling 10 million travelers a year. Quebec government posters salute Mirabel as “more than an airport,” and depict quaint, 19th-century farmhouses of the very kind that were leveled to make way for the 747s. Ironically, the posters are right; Mirabel is more than an airport. In the view of passengers and airlines alike, it has—in its first year of operation—become a national headache.
The principal victims are those 11 transAtlantic carriers that serve the Montreal region but lack landing rights in Toronto.* A Brussels-bound Toronto passenger on Sabena Belgian World Airlines, for example, must first fly to Montreal’s Dorval Airport and then hike 29 miles—a minimum one-hour journey—via bus (five dollars) or cab ($25-$30) to Mirabel. To avoid the changeover, most Belgiumbound travelers simply book with other airlines out of Toronto. Says Sabena sales manager Peter Janssen: “People don’t want a bus ride around Montreal when they can fly nonstop out of Toronto.” Aer Lingus has cut back weekly flights to Dublin by 50%, because of a decline in bookings. And Scandinavian Airlines manager in Canada, Hans Dedekam, attributes a 30% drop in business originating in Toronto to the Mirabel opening.
Even those airlines with access to both Toronto and Mirabel have suffered. CP Air, for example, says its per passenger costs at Mirabel are $31.84, compared to $9.80 at Dorval and an average of $7.21 at all North American stations. Those figures do not include costs of maintenance, crew layovers and ground crew transportation—all of which are higher at Mirabel because of the 35-mile distance from Montreal. Alitalia claims its Montreal costs have jumped 70% because of Mirabel. Air Canada estimates additional costs at six million to seven million dollars. And federal transport officials expect Mirabel to lose about $46.5 million (about $15 per passenger) in 1976-77, compared with profits of $9.1 million and $12.3 million at Dorval and Toronto respectively. Since the move to Mirabel last fall. Air France has recorded a 50% drop in bookings for its Montreal - Chicago run; and CP has trimmed overseas flights out of Mirabel from seven to three each week.
The carriers aren’t the only ones who have suffered. Says Consolidated-Bathurst president William Turner Jr., whose company stands to spend an extra $50,000 to $ 100,000 a year on its 2,250 flights because of Mirabel: “There’s nothing wrong with Mirabel that putting it in mothballs wouldn’t fix. That would be the cheapest way out for the taxpayers now.” In league with the city of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, Convention Bureau, Hotel Association and the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association Inc. (which says operating at two airports costs it an additional $1.5 million a year), Turner wrote Transport Minister Otto Lang to record opposition to the planned switchover of long-haul domestic flights from Dorval to Mirabel. Lang subsequently scrapped the plan. Montreal researcher David Kwechansky has likewise taken up the campaign to scuttle Mirabel—noting that only one major airport in the world (San Paulo’s Viracopos) is farther from downtown than Mirabel and that the city’s air traffic in 1975 actually declined by almost 5% from 1974. “No matter what you do, you can’t bring back the hundreds of millions it cost to build Mirabel,” Kwechansky says. “But why do we have to keep throwing more in?”
A er Lingus, Iberia, TAP ( Portuguese Airways), Olympic, S/tS, CSA (Czechoslovak Airlines), LOT (Polish' Airlines), Aeroflot,Sabena, El Al and Royal Air Maroc
While passengers grudgingly admit that Mirabel is aesthetically a winner, they question why, in a facility in which no costs were spared, coatless travelers returning from vacations in the south must brave winter winds to wait for the downtown bus. Two other common complaints—a shortage of customs inspectors and baggage carts—have been resolved, airport officials claim. And with the strike-delayed opening of CP Hotels’ Chateau Mirabel next summer, passengers will no longer have to bed down for the night on the terminal floor—as 200 travelers did last winter when storms blocked roads into the city.
Seeking to explain what went wrong, Transport officials point out that Mirabel was planned in the late Sixties, when air transportation was increasing 10% to 12% annually, but opened just as the recession and the fuel crisis combined to cut growth to 3%. “We just couldn’t see the current economic conditions back in 1969,” says Vince Paquette, Transport liaison officer.
The other major problem is ground transportation. Complains Hans Dedekam: “If you’ve got an international airport, you don’t go and operate it in the most isolated area of Canada. It might as well be Inuvik.” “Without a rapid transit system,” adds Consolidated-Bathurst’s Turner, “the airport is premature.” A 100mile-an-hour commuter rail link with Montreal is being planned, but planning studies won’t be ready until next February.
In the interim, government and airline officials are considering ways of allowing more connecting flights into Mirabel, without—at the same time—forcing Montrealers to go to Mirabel for flights that could be offered from Dorval. Any major changes, says Otto Lang, will have to await the results of that study, expected in the spring. As for the possibility of mothballing Mirabel, Lang says “it is completely out of the question.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.