TORONTO – A group of private pilots who fly out of Toronto’s island airport have turned to the Federal Court, claiming the local port authority has failed in its oversight role by allowing Porter Airlines to evict them from its hangars.
There are no hangars devoted to general aviation on the island, so many private pilots, flight schools and other businesses who use Toronto’s Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport rent space from Porter FBO Limited, a company related to the airport’s main tenant, Porter Airlines.
In an application filed to the Federal Court, the Toronto Island Pilots Association alleges Porter has forced a number of its members out of the airport by jacking up their rent by as much as 300 per cent or terminating their leases.
The association argues this violates the Tripartite Agreement that governs the island airport, which has been the subject of controversy over the years as island residents have vocally opposed its expansion.
The agreement — which was signed in 1983 by the city, Transport Canada and the port authority’s predecessor, the Toronto Harbour Commissioners — states the purpose of the airport is for general aviation and “limited” commercial flights.
The Port Authority oversees operations of the airport to make sure they’re in accordance with the Tripartite Agreement. But Julian Falconer, a lawyer representing the pilots association, says the port authority is simply handing the reins over to Porter Airlines.
“Porter has been given a blank cheque to run affairs at Billy Bishop Airport in circumstances where the Tripartite Agreement dictates exactly the opposite,” Falconer said.
“The airport should be renamed to the Bob Deluce Island Airport, because that’s the level of control and influence,” he added, referring to Porter’s chief executive.
However, Porter said it plans to increase the amount of space available for personal aviation, not decrease it, and it only terminated some leases in order to do renovations.
“In the longer term, we do anticipate that there will be more space than was originally available for (personal aviation),” said Porter spokesman Brad Cicero.
The airline also said rent increases of 33 per cent were more typical, reflecting comparable rates at other airports in the region.
“We don’t agree with the pleading that the pilots association has made,” said Cicero.
“We don’t think it’s accurate, and we’ll definitely be defending ourselves through the court process.”
The Toronto Port Authority said it would not comment on the case because it is before the courts.
“The Toronto Port Authority supports and is committed to a continued personal aviation presence at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport,” spokeswoman Pamela McDonald said in an email.
Porter recently announced it hopes to fly jets out of the island airport, a move that will require the airline to fill in part of the lake so it can extend the runway by 168 metres at each end.
The plan will also require approval from all three groups included in the Tripartite Agreement. It has become the subject of much debate, with some residents raising concerns about noise and increased traffic congestion.
Toronto city council has commissioned a study that will explore the proposed changes.
The pilots association argues that Porter’s rapid growth has been at the expense of the general aviation community — something the Tripartite Agreement was meant to preserve.
While the pilots association says the term does not apply to scheduled air services or commercial airlines, Porter contends that the Q400 turboprop planes it flies qualify the airline’s activities as general aviation.
Falconer said he hopes the case will go before a judge by the fall.
The pilots association alleges that as a result of Porter’s actions, a number of private pilots and other businesses have been forced to sell their planes or leave the island airport.
In an affidavit, the president of the Airborne Sensing Corporation says his aerial photographic survey company was evicted from the hangar space it was renting from Porter Airlines on April 30, 2012.
“Recently, there has been a mass exodus of General Aviation businesses and pilots from the Island Airport because of evictions and/or because their rent for hangar space or tie-down space has significantly increased,” said Alexander Giannalia in the affidavit.
However, Porter said it gave Airborne Sensing the option of staying on in some capacity, which the company declined.
Giannalia’s affidavit lists a total of seven pilots or businesses who have received rent increases from Porter and four whose leases have been terminated.
Island Air, the last of three pilot schools still operating out of the island airport, was almost shooed out as well, said Falconer.
“The Tripartite Agreement created checks and balances to ensure that a downtown airport wouldn’t become Pearson, flying over everybody’s neighbourhoods,” said Falconer.
“But in fact, the opposite has happened. The Port Authority, in my view, has completely abdicated its oversight role. And, frankly, we’re at the stage where it’s the wild, wild west. The rules have been thrown out the window.”