Image via flickr / junhao Lu
In lieu of new developments in the transit or crack files, the sexy story of the day is Porter’s proposed plan to expand the island airport’s runway by paving hundreds of metres into the lake, then changing the current law banning jets from flying out of downtown.
The anti-Porter contingent has compared this standoff to the citizen-led casino resistance that proved strong enough to defeat all that sleazy Vegas money and lobbying, but the two are not parallel.
Whereas Vegas conglomerates are the closest thing possible to flagrant villains, enough people agree that Porter as it currently stands is great. I’d drink free espresso in their lobby everyday if I didn’t need to buy a plane ticket for access. Whereas employees throughout Pearson airport torture commuters either for sheer pleasure or to advance their career, Porter staff aren’t just normal, but in my experience quite pleasant. Free beer and Terra chips on a flight purchased at 50% discount wins fans.
So while Porter’s plan has aroused opposition, it’s not quite on the same scale as the casino. The casino was denounced by a robust cross-section of experts from varying fields. If our prolonged casino debacle played out there, Jews and Palestinians would finally unite as one. But Porter provides a substantial service people love, it’s not at all an outright scam.
The casino advocates and Porter both used huge ad campaigns, and they’re literally using the same people to grease the wheels at city hall, but this is only a superficial similarity. It doesn’t reflect on the merits of the proposed expansion per se.
But imagine the public resistance if Porter tried this current plan in 2006, before we were so enamoured by free beer. No company is altruistic forever–if a friend gives me beer, he’ll eventually ask me to help move a couch up narrow stairs. Porter’s recent intrusion on city hall, tasking our bureaucrats to study their self-interested plan for jets, has made me wonder if all the goodwill Porter has rightly-earned over the years isn’t just a ploy to develop a public following that wouldn’t only refrain from opposing the big loud dirty jets, it would clamour for them.
Jets are obviously, viscerally loud, and unsurprisingly this objection has attracted the bulk of the focus, if not all of it. Anticipating this, Porter called the C-Series jets planned for their new fleet “whisper jets,” even before a prototype of the plane itself existed. But some councillors fear that once the runway is lengthened, they won’t have jurisdiction to restrict what type of jet is used. So even if the “whisper jet” has a mute button, we might very well hear other jets, private or commercial, the type the original tri-partite agreement thought prudent to ban from the downtown core. The best thing preventing large jets from flying there now isn’t an agreement or the law, which even Ryerson University flaunts, but that the runway is physically too short. Enforcing Toronto’s laws may be a joke, but the the laws of physics bend for no man.
Anyway, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of their real volume, Porter announced (only the evening before a public consultation) their plan to pave an additional 32 metres at each end of the runway, adding to the original 168-metre extension on either side into the lake. A longer runway allows for less thrust during takeoffs and other “noise abatement procedures,” they say. Depending on how you see it, either their need to pave even further into the lake is proof that the original plan wasn’t sufficiently quiet, or Porter seeks to pave their way into our hearts by making the alleged “whisper” even more hushed.
Just this Monday, Bombardier tested the CS-100 at their Quebec headquarters before an anxious audience both live and streaming online. It played out as if scripted by Porter to show off the plane’s alleged silence. The whooping audience raucously applauded as the plane did what we bet with our lives it will do each time we fly: take off and land without exploding.
But, as if the feuding parties here somehow got alternate turns controlling fate, on Tuesday, the day after Bombardier’s demonstration, the city announced that the jet’s crucial noise study data would not be available in time for the December meeting when city council is to vote on whether or not to grant Porter the go-ahead. Nonetheless, a Porter spokesman insisted that the testing will be done in time. Indeed, Bombardier, which stands to gain a good contract if the airport expands, told city staff that the manufacturer delivered the engine to a facility for evaluation. Yes, but the city’s aviation consultants said this doesn’t conform to international testing standards, and that the engine needed to be tested on the aircraft’s frame during an actual flight.
Also, the annual assessment by Transport Canada “does not take into account how aircraft noise is actually perceived by individuals or affected by atmospheric conditions around the airport.” In other words, it’s unclear how loud they will be perceived by us on the ground when they fly over, and it can change with the weather. There isn’t one all-encompassing test called “airplane volume.” Nobody should be comfortable making a decision without knowing how loud they’ll be.
Porter will never say, “we tested the jets and turns out they’re really loud.” So they’re hopelessly biased, but with all the corporate lobbying going on it’s important that the city, let alone Porter, remain unbiased (maybe it’s too late). But it’s crucial to remember that there are many other objections besides the noise.
There’s a range of environmental concerns, from how increased pollution affects Lake Ontario, the source of our drinking water, to how toxic emissions from jets is linked to increases in cancer and bronchitis. The organization NoJetsTO directs us to a letter written by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, addressed to the mayor, citing these and several other concerns. The letter compares our proposed airport to the one in Santa Monica, which for proximity to a city centre is analogous. The verdict is clear: “our personal assessment is to stop this in its tracks. It is unhealthy and dangerous.” So while critics of the airport expansion don’t seem quite as ubiquitous as the casino’s, they should be taken seriously; they are not just a handful of condo dwellers looking to preserve the value of their units. (And: why does a condo next to an airport decrease in value so drastically if airports aren’t noisy or a serious source of pollution?)
If it could be proved that the airport expansion was invasively loud and an environmental and health catastrophe, those currently in favour, save Robert Deluce, would likely change their minds. On the other hand, if testing was demonstrably impartial and thorough, and proved that the expansion and the use of jets was not invasive on the ears and posed no health or environmental risks of any type, a convenient airport run by a company we all love compared to Air Canada would be approved by current critics. It all hinges on these tests.
But in this current climate of corporate lobbying, ad-driven frenzy, and Porter’s insistence that the testing will be completed in time despite city experts giving news of the opposite, even a positive test result giving Porter the go-ahead would be suspicious, and would cast the integrity of the entire process into doubt.
In theory, if Porter can meet my burden of proof, I am open to their plans for expansion. But my instinct tells me they cannot, unless with money and misguided but popular support they fudge or skirt the process altogether. That very well might happen. Then the city that enhanced its majestic waterfront by building not a bench or a boardwalk but a highway will finish the job.
Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.