The airport pilots aren't trying to save

Mirabel airport is a beautiful facility. Located in the foothills of the Laurentians, it has two 12,000 foot runways (one with a CAT II approach to 100 ft) and a big, bright terminal building. Now, less than 30 years after it opened, the airport is mostly shut down, but there’s no outcry from the aviation community; in fact, no one except the employees losing their jobs seems to care much at all. I know I don’t.

The problem is that Mirabel reminds Canadians of some of the more unpleasant parts of recent Canadian history. Way back when Canada was celebrating its 100 birthday with Expo ’67, Montreal was Canada’s unchallenged first city, a corporate, cultural, and industrial giant. The next year a Montrealer, Pierre Trudeau, became Prime Minister, and one of his priorities was to help Montreal keep growing into one of the world’s major cities. A new, larger airport built (too far) outside the city was one of the prerequisites, so Trudeau’s government grabbed an enormous area of land north of the city and evicted 10,000 people from their property (most of that was never used). By 1975, when the airport opened, it was not only massively over budget but already superfluous — Montreal’s downward spiral had begun with the October crisis of 1970 and Trudeau’s military intervention, which had alienated French Canadians and would soon lead to separatist governments, referendums, and the repressive language laws that would drive out much of Montreal’s business base to Toronto and Ottawa during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Furthermore, preparations for the (disasterous) 1976 Olympics were already pushing the city itself close to bankruptcy.

When my parents left me with my grandparents and drove to Montreal in the late 1960’s, they saw a bright, shining city of the future; when I went there on school trips around 1980, I saw a dirty city full of boarded-up buildings and a mind-bogglingly large collection of strip clubs advertising Girls! Young! Young! Young!. By then, Montreal had gone from Canada’s first city to Canada’s basket case: barely enough people were travelling to Montreal to keep the old Dorval airport busy, much less Mirabel. So the government tried different ways to force people to use Mirabel — for a long time, all international flights had to use the airport — damaging Montreal’s economy even more by inconveniencing travellers.

Eventually, long after Trudeau left office, the government accepted that Mirabel was never going to flourish and allowed international flights to use Dorval airport again. The city of Montreal is cleaner and more prosperous than it has been in a long time, but Dorval seems quite adequate for its needs: it is still a relatively quiet, general-aviation-friendly airport (there are no landing fees, and they’re always happy to let me do a touch-and-go: try that at Toronto/Pearson). For a while, charter flights kept using Mirabel, but on Monday 1 November 2004 the last of those departed and the passenger terminal shut down permanently.

That’s not to say that people haven’t found uses for Mirabel. It’s great for practice approaches — how often can you find an airport with multiple ILS approaches and 12,000 ft runways where the tower controllers are actually grateful for something to keep them busy? And flight instructors love setting up trick cross-country problems where Mirabel is the obvious fuel stop, to see if students read the Canada Flight Supplement closely enough to find out that Mirabel does not have 100LL fuel available. Mirabel should have been the obvious choice for charter flights to Mont Tremblant, a trendy ski resort a short drive to the north, but instead promoters fixed up an old military strip a bit closer and are amusingly calling it Mont Tremblant International Airport.

I haven’t heard the details, but I imagine that Mirabel’s tower will shut down now and the control zone will revert to class E. At least one of the runways will probably stay in operation — Mirabel is the home base of Bombardier, the world’s #3 airline manufacturer after Airbus and Boeing — but it might not be worth the money it will cost to maintain the ILS approaches (Ottawa is already a good, close alternate for Montreal) unless there’s a lot of freight traffic. Recently, Montreal’s Dorval airport, the one Trudeau tried to replace, was renamed Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in his honour, but most people think that in all justice the name should have gone to Mirabel.

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