Nerdy Notes: Canada’s White Elephant

In 1969, eminent domain was taken to new heights when the Canadians decided the time had come to build the world’s largest airport.  Today, four decades later, the airport is still there… and no one uses it.

Well, that’s not quite true.  Freight carriers use the airport, and some executive jets fly there from time to time.  Nevertheless, an airport which was designed to handle tens of millions of passengers a year has, for the last half-decade, handled zero.  Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is, without a doubt, the definitive “white elephant”.  It’s a public works project which was launched on an epic scale and ended up as a tremendous embarrassment.

In the 1960s, jet airplanes were taking air travel to new levels (literally and figuratively).  The Boeing 747—the first “widebody” airliner—had made nonstop travel overseas possible, comfortable, and affordable (at least two aspects of which have since, it would seem, been lost).  As airlines grew rapidly and cities expanded and upgraded airports, it became clear that Montreal’s existing airport—Montréal-Dorval International Airport—would not be big enough to handle the expected hoards of travelers coming into and going from Canada.

A plan was hatched to expropriate tens of thousands of acres of farmland in the rural areas outside of Montreal and build a massive new airport.  The old airport (Dorval) was (and still is) situated inside of Montreal’s major urban core.  Because Montreal itself is on a large island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, expansion of Dorval was more or less impossible.

Eventually, it was decided that the new airport should occupy an incredible 98,000 acres of land.  That’s an area larger than St. Louis, San Francisco, or Boston… or Montreal itself.  Thousands of farmers and residents of the small town of Mirabel lost their land for the new project.  The government of Quebec planned to built the world’s largest airport on this land, and then close Dorval.  They wasted no time in getting started.

In 1975, the new airport—usually just called “Mirabel”—opened.  Only about 19% of the land which the government had taken was developed.  The rest of the airport would be built in stages, later.  All international airport was required to go to Mirabel (rather than Dorval).

Initial plans called for the construction of a high-speed light rail line connecting Mirabel to downtown Montreal.  The new airport is forty kilometers west of the city, and is only accessible via several roads, and if there’s any traffic, the drive is at least an hour long.

As the ‘70s progressed, the range of airliners increased dramatically.  Toronto became the main entryway to Canada, and the need to stop over in Montreal for a refuel before heading across the Atlantic disappeared.  At the same time, because domestic passengers were still traveling out of Dorval airport—right in the heart of Montreal—popularity for Mirabel simply never materialized.  Nor, for that matter, did the high-speed rail line.

The Canadian government encouraged airlines and travelers to use the new airport, but neither group could see any reason to.  The fear that Dorval would be overwhelmed by passenger volume proved unfounded.  With no absolute requirement to use Mirabel, airlines favored the older, closer airport, and used it more each year.

A plan view of Mirabel Airport. Only a small portion of the original plan was ever developed. (Incidentally, the highway labeled "To Hull" is, at present, being completed... forty years later.) This image is by Wikipedia user AlbertR.

In the 1980s, Toronto’s airport became the most heavily used in Canada.  Shortly thereafter, it was surpassed by Vancouver, which handled more traffic annually than both of Montreal’s airports.  Airlines found that Toronto provided better connectivity to the rest of Canada, as well as to the United States.  They also found that in Toronto—which is in Ontario—they were not required to speak French.  The province of Quebec has always been unduly proud of its French heritage, and at various times and in varying degrees has attempted to require that business be conducted in French.  Airlines—seeing no reason to teach their employees a new language—opted to use airports and services outside of Quebec, and therefore outside of Montreal.

Recognizing that the dream of completing Mirabel would almost certainly never come true, in 1989, the government returned 82% of the expropriated farmland to its former owners.

Then, in 1997, the requirement for international carriers to provide service only from Mirabel was repealed.  Immediately, the major international carriers fought for gates and landing rights at Dorval—and won them.  This proved popular with travelers and airlines alike, and meant that Mirabel’s life as an international airport was coming to a certain end.

Between 2000 and 2005, the government of Montreal spent several hundred million dollars renovating, upgrading, and expanding Dorval’s facilities.  Today, the airport handles the same twenty-million passengers a year which were originally envisioned as the very reason for which Mirabel was needed.

As airlines withdrew service from Mirabel, the decision was made to close the airport to passenger travel altogether.  In 2004, the last passenger flight left the failed airport.  In the years since, the terminal building has served as the set for numerous movies, and the apron in front of the passenger terminal has been converted into a racecourse.  One of the two runways (of six originally planned) has been closed.  Freight carriers still do some business there—FedEx and the like—and a Canadian plane manufacturer assembles its regional jets at the airport.

In 2006, Canada’s Prime Minister allowed 125 farmers to buy back another 11,000 acres of Mirabel Airport’s land.  For three and a half decades, they had rented the land from the federal government, told that some day, they’d have to give it up for an airport to be put in.

The story of Mirabel Airport is one of strange failings.  It was a tremendous public expense, and caused a lot of headaches… all, it seems, for nothing.  For nearly four decades, it was an attempt to make things bigger and better, but instead served only to encumber a system which seemed to work just fine without it.  Theories as to why Mirabel failed are many—the lack of a high speed rail system, the government’s failure to require airlines to use the new airport and close the old one, its distance from downtown.  Ultimately, however, Mirabel’s failure is due to the unpredictable nature of things.  Running a civilization isn’t easy, of course, and it’s well of us to remember that even the best planners and designers can’t—and never will be able to—predict and explain everything.  There will always be white elephants; there will always be Mirabel.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs, an editor at The Jet Fuel Review.  He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer.  Mark is a sophomore and will be working a few hours as a tutor in the Writing Center in the 2011-2012 school year.

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