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Air traffic controllers monitor traffic at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal in this photo from 2012. (Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg)
Air traffic controllers monitor traffic at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal in this photo from 2012. (Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: Privatization isn’t the only way to fix problems at Canada’s airports Add to ...

As befits tradition, Finance Minister Bill Morneau showed off a new pair of shoes on Monday, acquired for the delivery of the federal budget on Wednesday.

Here’s hoping Mr. Morneau treads in them carefully as Ottawa looks for piggybanks to smash in order to fund its much-vaunted infrastructure spending.

Pre-budget speculation has swirled about whether the federal government might seek to cash in on the country’s 22 largest airports. The C.D. Howe Institute has estimated that privatizing them could raise as much as $16-billion, depending on how existing debts are dealt with.

The Finance Department has another study in hand, which it commissioned from an investment bank and has yet to release publicly, that doubtless arrives at similar conclusions.

Whether such a privatization plan is announced now or later, the expectation that one is coming is real and growing.

There are good reasons to privatize the major airports, which for three decades have operated as not-for-profit, non-share corporations that pay hefty annual rents to the federal government.

Among other benefits, privatization could introduce more robust and responsive airport governance and – of perhaps more interest to the Trudeau government – free up capital for other projects.

On the other hand, it could hurt the travelling public. A recent statutory review chaired by former federal industry minister David Emerson examined all the options – from the status quo to equity partnerships to outright privatization. It wasn’t unsympathetic to the latter but it warned that, absent stringent regulation, higher costs to travellers could result.

That’s precisely the fear brandished by opponents, who include the current administrators of several major Canadian airports, the New Democrats in Parliament and, more surprisingly, the opposition Conservatives.

The current airport regime isn’t perfect. But there are ways to fix it that don’t go the privatization route. Ottawa should avoid undue haste as it looks for ways to pay for its infrastructure promises.

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