January 6, 2022

Is Mirabel Airport seeking to oust flight schools from its facilities

Jon Robinson

By Marc-André Théorêt (Photo: Yvan Leduc)

We all know the tumultuous history of the Montreal Mirabel Airport. Planned in the 1960s to be one of the world’s biggest airports, its initial phase was finally completed in 1975 and remained operational until 2004, ultimately becoming infamous as one of the greatest misfires in the history of airport planning.

Since its closure to commercial traffic, it has been primarily been used by freight carriers and a number of aviation companies such as Bombardier, Pratt & Whitney and Nolinor, among others. Managed jointly by the Montréal-Trudeau Airport and a non-profit named Aéroports de Montréal (ADM) since 1992, it had been left in a state of stagnation compared to Montréal-Trudeau, which is constantly being upgraded.

Since its inauguration, the Mirabel airport has always remained receptive to general trends in the aviation sector, notably by allowing touch-and-go landings of piston engine aircrafts and the use of its airstrips for practice instrument approaches.

In 2007, a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) was even installing infrastructure in order to attract business jets and other private aircraft looking for an alternative to Montréal-Trudeau’s own FBOs.

In 2011, ADM showed interest in an air park project aimed at General Aviation. This project led to the installation of 20 hangars built by Mirajet. These new infrastructures, representing private investments of over $10 million, convinced two flight schools to move there in 2016.

Thus, Cargair and Académie aéronautique established themselves in this ideal location for training future airline pilots. Indeed, there is no better place for training than an underused airport equipped with huge airstrips and located just far enough away from urban sectors, where engine noise would not bother anyone. Students soon came in droves and aircraft movements increased considerably, going from 24,000 in 2008 to more than 80,000 in 2019.

Consequently, in January 2020, NAV CANADA decided to put its control tower, which had been closed since 2008, back into operation. This goes to show to what extent General Aviation brought new life to the airport.

Mirabel-based flight schools offer the best training programs, with high-quality installations, little time spent waiting on the ground due to traffic, the presence of a control tower to help learn radio communications and, of course, a safer learning environment due to the airport’s large airstrip space.

Until just recently, ADM charged $10.55 per 1,000 kg at take-off for planes other than piston engine aircrafts, with a minimum fee of $63.21 per landing, and $20.32 for piston aircrafts, with the possibility of purchasing an annual subscription for $524.96 per plane. While these fees were relatively high compared to other installations in Canada and the United States, they were considered acceptable by the airport’s clients.

But all of this changed this past January when, pretexting loss of revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ADM increased its fees significantly, to $12.40 per 1,000 kg for jets and turboprops and to $64.79 for piston aircrafts (equivalent to the price charged for a 5,000 kilogram jet aircraft).

Furthermore, annual subscriptions for piston aircrafts were abolished. As a result of these price increases, flight schools have seen their expenses increase by approximately $40,000 per plane annually. A price increase of this magnitude cannot be simply absorbed and passed on to student pilots.

Asked about the role of the Covid-19 pandemic in this major increase, ADM argues that without subsidies for Transport Canada, the organization was forced to turn to its users – a decision purely motivated by accounting concerns. Interviewed again this past spring, the organization cited airstrip wear caused by piston aircrafts, while a recent comment instead pointed to small aircraft movements creating risks of accidents around the airport.

Both of these arguments are completely undocumented and simply don’t hold water, which leads us to believe that ADM is actually trying to drive General Aviation out of its installations. ADM considers Montreal Mirabel an industrial airport, a term that has no meaning in the aviation industry.

Of course, Mirabel does manage a large quantity of freight traffic, but it should not be limited to this function. The business generated by general aviation should not be undervalued, but instead used to promote its installations and attract developers and start-ups.

It would take vision to do this, but it seems vision is not the ADM’s priority for Mirabel.