|English: An aerial photograph from a Porter Air Flight of the Montréal Mirabel International Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Terminal slated for demolition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The news that Mirabel airport terminal is to be demolished is an amazing decision, no matter which way you look at it. What is most amazing about it is that it has been almost inevitable from the beginning.
I remember the years in which this bright new star, Mirabel airport was being built. I was a reporter on The Montreal Star at the time. I remember the paper had senior reporter, W.A. Wilson, who for month after month, year after year, kept writing about the problems of the airport construction . If I remember correctly, he was no great fan of the airport, or where it was being built. In retrospect this reminds me of what happened in London in the 1960s when the super-sonic airplane, the Concorde was being built, and The Economist had a reporter, Mary Goldring, who month after month, year after year, pursued the argument that the plane would never fly.
No one could say Mirabel airport would never be built, because its progress to completion, though anguished, was visible to everyone.
In those days I was writing a lot about urban planning issues, and I vividly remember the argument of a city planning officer with an interest in Mirabel (whose name escapes me for the moment.) He said Montreal, at that time, was the major point of contact for Canada with the outside world. All airlines made Montreal their first port of call, which gave the city international stature. But, he said, if that should be ended, Montreal would become merely a regional centre, a city serving its Quebec hinterland, and nothing else.
The argument about where to place the new airport was influenced by nationalist considerations. Quebec nationalism was on the rise in the 1960s, following the Quiet Revolution initiated by the Lesage Liberal government, and there was a strong feeling among the various governments that a Montreal airport should be designed to service the province, above everything. My planner friend pointed out that if the airport were to be located in the south-western corner of Quebec, it would be closer to the population centres of Ontario, and thus have a larger catchment area than in the position eventually chosen for it, which was 24 miles north-west of the city of Montreal in a region of small-scale farming, small, quaint villages, and not much population. A huge area of land was expropriated to allow for the biggest possible airport, indeed, the largest airport every envisioned up to that time, with a planned area of nearly 40,000 hectares (or nearly 100,000 acres) Dozens of farmers were bought out, and it became a popular destination for seekers after traditional Quebec furniture to go on weekends in the hope of picking up a beautiful table or chair cheaply. A friend of mine actually created an antiques business of the things she managed to buy in this way from disconsolate farmers.
That most of this land was never needed is just, I suppose, a by-product of the foolishness of the whole enterprise. Indeed of the 98,000 acres expropriated more than 85,000 were eventually deeded back to their owners.
At first it was mandatory for foreign airlines to use Mirabel, but gradually the airlines realized the airport was in the wrong place, was unaccompanied by any of the promised rapid transit connections to the city of Montreal, and in short was not a good place for them to do their business, not any more. So, one by one, they transferred their terminal operations to Toronto, which at this time was Canada’s second largest city, but rapidly thereafter began to outstrip Montreal in population, industry and economic vitality. Montreal had been dreaming of becoming a metropolis of 7,000,000 people, but in the event, it is Toronto that at last count has become the centre of an urban agglomeration of 8,700,000 people, while Montreal region has 3.800,000.
Of course many people will argue that is a good thing. But let us stick to the phenomenon of Mirabel airport. Designed to accommodate up to 20,000,000 passengers a year, with space to expand to 70,000,000, Mirabel never attracted more than 200,000 a year, while the Pearson airport in Toronto (only 14 miles north-west of the city) has grown to handling 36,000,000 passengers in 2013.
Abandoned by the scheduled airlines Mirabel was used for charter flights: I remember well, a resident of Ottawa at the time, having to connect to flights leaving there in the early mornings. It was a damnably awkward place to get to. If one drove over the night before, it added to one’s costs; and if one decided to come on the day of the flight, it meant getting up about two a.m. to have any prospect of making the flight. Having assured a parking place for one’s car, one then had to stand in huge, inchoate, queues of unhappy and discontented travellers bent on going on what was laughingly called a holiday. When charter airlines began to abandon Mirabel, it became a cargo airport in addition to which it has been used by various manufacturing plants to do with aviation. But as the biggest airport ever built, it has always been nothing but a white elephant, whose maintenance, even when not being used, is said to have run to $30,000,000 a year.
To me, the interesting thing is that any wise city planner could have foreseen all of this (and at least one did to my certain knowledge).
Of course, this sort of thing is not exactly unusual. I remember writing about the planning problems of Britain in the 1960s, when governments were anxious to divert population from the overcrowded south of the country, London-centred as it was, to the economically deprived northern parts. Many plans were introduced with that objective. But the fact is, most of them never worked. The build-up of people in the south seems to have been inexorable.
It had to do not only with the preferences of people, but with the fact that it was part of a scarcely acknowledged belt of intense urban development that stretched right across Europe from the industrial areas of northern Germany (the Ruhr valley, and so on) through northern France, Belgium and Holland (the latter country being among the most intensively populated countries in the world), and across to southern England, apparently totally skipping the English channel.
Hard are the ways of the economic and physical planner.
But then, I am constantly being reminded that the people who almost brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, were all regarded as geniuses at Harvard university. Too much brain-power doesn’t really seem to be the answer to humanity’s growing, and manifold problems.
Mirabel’s about-to-be-demolished air terminal is a symbol of that.