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A passenger sleeps on a bench as long delays affect Toronto's Pearson Airport due the extreme cold on Jan. 7, 2014. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A passenger sleeps on a bench as long delays affect Toronto's Pearson Airport due the extreme cold on Jan. 7, 2014. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Airport boss defends Pearson ground stop as minister presses for review Add to ...

The federal Transport Minister is asking for a review of the decision to shut down incoming North American flights at Pearson International Airport this week, and is expressing concern about the reliability of air transportation.

But the head of the agency that manages Canada’s busiest airport is standing by his decision to temporarily halt incoming flights this week – stranding thousands of travellers – saying he made the call after close consultations.

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Howard Eng, chief executive of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said he halted North American flights into Pearson late Monday night after first consulting with a senior member of his staff, airlines and Nav Canada, the country’s air navigation provider, about safety concerns over operating in cold, icy and windy conditions.

“I gave the green light to proceed,” Mr. Eng said in an interview on Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time since the shutdown.

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has called on authorities at Pearson to conduct a review, saying she hopes it will lead to improvements. “There is no question that safety is a top priority,” Ms. Raitt wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Thursday, “but reliability of our transport system is important as well.”

The GTAA, which manages Pearson, instituted a Tier 2 ground stop at 11 p.m. on Monday, preventing North American flights from arriving at the terminal. Since lifting the ground stop at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the GTAA has shouldered much of the blame for its response to the deep freeze in a country where cold winters are a fact of life. Other major North American airports facing similarly frigid weather did not take such drastic measures, although thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled elsewhere in Canada and the United States.

Mr. Eng contacted Ms. Raitt on Thursday after reading her comments in The Globe online, and pledged to gather everyone in the same room – the airlines, the GTAA, Nav Canada – to talk about what they could have done better. Everything will be on the table, he said, including how the GTAA communicated with the public. For its part, he said, the GTAA plans to publicly release its “action plan.”

Mr. Eng was forced to manage the problem and try to “stabilize” Pearson airport from afar. He was in Edmonton for business meetings when he imposed the ground halt, he said, and decided his time would be better spent by remaining there and communicating with staff by phone. He arrived back in Toronto on Thursday.

While Mr. Eng remained behind the scenes, public relations staff at the GTAA communicated with the thousands of passengers stranded at the airport. “We may change the process,” he conceded.

Mr. Eng has extensive experience managing airports. He was appointed to the helm of the GTAA in March, 2012, after 17 years at the Hong Kong International Airport, where he was a senior manager. He earned just over $700,000 in 2012, according to the GTAA’s disclosure records.

He likened the disruption at Pearson this week to the major typhoons he experienced in Hong Kong.

Here in Canada, the structure of the GTAA and the agencies that run other major domestic airports was born of a compromise in former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s government, said former federal transportation minister David Collenette. Some wanted airports privatized, while others, Mr. Collenette included, wanted them to remain public assets.

Ottawa turned the country’s major airports over to non-profits to cut expenses and government liability, a decision that was part of a broader move toward deregulation that began in the 1980s and continued under the Chrétien government.

The non-profit model, Mr. Collenette contends, is the “best of both worlds,” since it frees airports from political interference, allowing them to make decisions based on their own best interest without having to please politicians, while simultaneously ensuring that all money the airport raises is reinvested in improving the airport. Pearson was able to borrow billions to improve the airport, he said, because lenders knew there was no risk of government interference.

Mr. Collenette points to the numerous expansions and improvements at Pearson and Vancouver International over the last decade as proof that the non-profit model works.

The governance model has, however, created frictions. Some airports, for instance, paid for new terminals by increasing fees, a move that angered airlines. Mr. Collenette said, it might be time to review the structure. “I still think that’s a debate that’s worth having.”

“It was ‘96 when the National Airports Policy came in, that’s getting on almost 20 years and maybe it’s time for parliament to look at it.”

With reports from Jane Taber and Brent Jang

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