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Best of Airways: Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport — Small but Mighty, Simple yet Elegant

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Best of Airways: Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport — Small but Mighty, Simple yet Elegant

Andrew Cline

Best of Airways: Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport — Small but Mighty, Simple yet Elegant
March 24
10:00 2018

Written by Rohan Anand. Photos by Andrew Cline • Airways Magazine, July 2017


Billy Bishop, among its glories is the fact that one can reach downtown within eight minutes —literally providing Torontonian businesses and residents with an airport in their backyard.

However, while convenience is one major contributing factor to its popularity, Billy Bishop’s mystique as a niche inner-city airport, located on an island, offers an entirely new level of flair to its customers and stakeholders.

Business and leisure passengers alike continually marvel at the ingenuity that YTZ’s owner and operator, PortsToronto, employs each year to broaden the airport’s appeal. Though it wins awards with almost numbing regularity, the airport is fervently dedicated to self-improvement. Each year, Billy Bishop creates a new set of benchmarks to achieve and exceed, from facility improvements, green projects to long-term capital budgeting.

The popularity of YTZ (formerly known as Toronto Island Airport and Toronto City Centre Airport) shows no signs of slowing down. It handled 2.5 million passengers in 2015, the number rising to 2.7 million in 2016.

YTZ has ten gates which offer covered canopies, and go right up to the Q400s.

A Waterfront Gem


Billy Bishop is Canada’s ninth busiest international airport and its sixth busiest airport in terms of passenger service to the United States. Federally incorporated PortsToronto oversees the management of YTZ, as well as Marine Terminals 51 and 52 within the Port of Toronto and the Outer Harbour Marina.

The airport accounts for more than $2.1 billion in economic output each year and supports over 6,500 local jobs.

At its core, YTZ’s geography (and geology) are its most defining attributes. The airport is located on the Toronto Islands, a few hundred meters off the shoreline of Bathurst Quay in Downtown Toronto. A single east-west runway (08/26, measured at 3,988ft or 1,216m) affords breathtaking views of Toronto’s downtown waterfront during takeoffs and landings. A shorter runway (06/24, at 2,460ft or 750m) accommodates smaller aircraft.

Every decision pertaining to infrastructure improvements requires the careful involvement of multiple stakeholders, including the City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto, and the Bathurst Quay Neighborhood.

Under the Canada Marine Act, PortsToronto cannot fund projects or activities using taxpayer dollars, meaning that each and every improvement for customers is self-sufficiently funded. Luckily, despite receiving no federal, provincial, or municipal funding, PortsToronto has been profitable for the past eight years—and shows no signs of slowing down.

The airport prizes sustainability in community engagement, economic performance, and environmental stewardship, especially given the location of Billy Bishop on the Toronto Islands.

While the appeal of a waterfront airport provides advantages in aesthetics and convenience, the location creates challenges.  Accessibility is one for example, as the airport has only one entry point from land. Noise complaints are another problem, with over 200 daily takeoffs and landings on turboprop aircraft. Construction activities require careful precision and planning, as the airport is surrounded by water on three sides leaving one remaining side to transport passengers from the mainland to the Terminal.

“One of the things we have to do is work closely with the community to make sure the airport is in balance with the city and the waterfront,” said Gene Cabral, Executive Vice-President for Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and PortsToronto. “We have to balance the needs of our customers while respecting the uniqueness of where we are.”

An example of the management’s ingenuity is the three-year building project currently underway to modernize the airfield and its runways, including the addition of LED lighting. Getting construction materials and personnel onsite without congesting the downtown is a challenge. To solve the problem, YTZ is using barges to bring in all of the materials and trucks overnight.

“This removes about 15,000 vehicles from the road, which, otherwise, would have had to come through the downtown core in order to get to the airport,” said Cabral.

Love in the Heart of the City


Billy Bishop has become quite accustomed to receiving prizes and awards from international agencies and passengers alike. In 2017, it has already been named one of North America’s Best Airports by Skytrax World Airport Awards, voted on annually by 13.8 million passengers. It also won in 2016, 2015, and 2013. The airport has also won the Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Service Quality Award, and even an honor from the private-jet charter company PrivateFly, as one of the Top 10 Most Scenic Airports.

One of Billy Bishop’s proudest accomplishments was the construction of the award-winning pedestrian tunnel that opened on July 30, 2015. Passengers used to take a ferry, which departed every 15 minutes, to transfer between the mainland and the airport terminal. This had been the status quo since the airport had opened in 1939. The ferry ran from 05:15 for staff (05:30 for passengers) until midnight, and passengers could travel to and from the ferry drop-off point on a complimentary shuttle bus service, with WiFi and GPS tracking, to the intersection of York Street and Front Street in downtown.

Billy Bishop has been voted among the Top Ten Most Scenic Airport Landings in the World, based on global polls.

“It was a game-changer for us as it allows passengers to control their access to the airport,” said Cabral. “The ferry operation was very effective, and we continue to operate it today since there is a core group of people who enjoy its breathtaking view as you cross the waterway, but it was a challenge at times, especially as the popularity of the airport grew.”

According to a study conducted by Dillion Consulting in May 2016, the new pedestrian tunnel is now used by 90% of passengers. Built by a public-private partnership, the tunnel dips 100ft below the surface of Lake Ontario. Passengers can complete the walk through the tunnel in less than six minutes. On the mainland side, there’s a one-story pavilion with six elevator banks that serves as the entryway. The 853ft (260m) tunnel has four moving sidewalks and connects to an atrium in the island Terminal.

From Windy City to Québec City


If you look at Billy Bishop’s route map, it resembles a near-perfect circle of short-haul markets. Flying out of YTZ can take you as far south as Orlando or due north to Timmins, Ontario. One can literally cross three of the five Great Lakes and head to Thunder Bay or go in the opposite direction towards Québec City.

YTZ offers multiple daily routes to important US business destinations such as Boston, Chicago, Washington DC (IAD), Newark (EWR), and Pittsburgh (PIT). Seasonal markets are also offered to Burlington, Vermont (BTV), or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (MYR). Although Billy Bishop does not have Customs Preclearance facilities in place quite yet, a plan is in place to make that happen.

Two carriers predominantly serve YTZ: Air Canada Express (QK) and Porter Airlines (PD) (Airways, March 2015). The airport has 202 available slots, of which QK is entitled to 30, while the remaining slots are owned by Porter. Air Canada Express flies to Montréal and Moncton from YTZ.

Porter Airlines operates Q400 Turboprop aircraft exclusively into Billy Bishop.

Customers can also take advantage of one-stop connections on Porter and Air Canada to markets beyond the Q400 radii from Toronto. For example, Porter offers connecting service from Halifax (YHZ) to Stephenville (YJT) and St. John’s (YYT). Air Canada can connect passengers from YTZ to a variety of global destinations, on both Air Canada and its partner carriers, over Montréal (YUL).

Porter also has an interline agreement with JetBlue (B6) that enables customers to book single-itinerary flights to and from YTZ connecting through Boston (BOS) or EWR to over 30 JetBlue destinations in the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

It’s My Airport


In 2016, PortsToronto launched a social media campaign titled It’s My Airport, featuring frequent travelers out of Billy Bishop airport providing video testimonials on YTZ’s remarkable advantages. People refer to the entire end-to-end journey at Billy Bishop as “an Executive experience,” given how one can literally get from the dock pavilion to inside security “within five minutes,” in some circumstances. The airport also offers passengers a complimentary lounge with free beer and wine, snacks, and WiFi.

As far as parking and concessions are concerned, the airport does have some limitations. There is not much space for a parking lot, and no full-service restaurant. An Aroma coffee shop and snacks are available in the departures hall area, but even these amenities do not really fit within the model of YTZ, given that it is an airport designed to get people to and from Toronto as efficiently as possible.

“One of the things we’re quite proud of is that 40% of the people flying in and out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport either walk, cycle, or take public transit or our free shuttle to Union Station,” said Cabral. “If you’re a customer who needs to get to Montréal, flying through us may shave off 60 to 90 minutes of travel time over flying from Toronto Pearson (YYZ) airport.”

View of downtown Toronto, and the iconic CN Tower, from Billy Bishop Airfield.

The terminal facility is owned and operated by Nieuport Aviation Infrastructure Partners. There are 10 gates, with covered canopies that go right up to the Q400s to spare passengers from direct exposure to the elements.

YTZ has no commercial projects in the pipeline to expand slots or attract other carriers, but as long as it continues to reap awards, win customers, and provide the consistent and high-level of quality service that is affiliated with its brand, it will continue to find new ways to improve and outperform itself.

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A Global Review of Commercial Flight since 1994: the leading Commercial Aviation publication in North America and 35 nations worldwide. Based in Miami, Florida.

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