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After Pearson shutdown, critics press for shakeup of airport agency

A passenger looks up at the flight status signs at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Jan. 8, 2013.


The temporary shutdown of incoming North American flights at Toronto Pearson International Airport that stranded thousands of travellers is leading to calls for an overhaul of the agency that manages Canada's busiest airport.

A growing chorus of municipal leaders say that, after last week's deep freeze, governance changes are needed at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. The frigid weather prompted the agency to institute a ground stop at 11 p.m. on Jan. 6, halting the arrival of North American flights to Pearson for 11 hours. The ground stop contributed to chaos at the airport, where travellers were stuck for hours while the agency's chief executive officer remained silent for much of the crisis.

The federal government turned over management of Canada's airports to regional agencies two decades ago. Even though Ottawa retains regulatory control over the aviation industry, it is taking a hands-off approach with the GTAA.

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A spokesman for federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who last week called on authorities at Pearson to review their handling of the shutdown, said the GTAA is "entirely responsible" for the management, operation and development of the airport.

"The government of Canada's primary role is as the safety and security regulator for all airports," Rémi Moreau said in an e-mail on Tuesday.

Toronto Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of the city's economic development committee, said more transparency is needed in the governance of the GTAA.

"I think that there are a lot of questions to be answered," said Mr. Thompson, who experienced some of the slowdown first hand when he sat for more than two hours on the tarmac at Pearson after his plane landed last Monday morning – before the GTAA imposed the ground stop – and waited another two hours for his luggage.

"It appears to me that not enough has been done," he said. "If we are a world-class airport, we have got to do better."

Municipal leaders have no say in the governance of the GTAA. While municipalities can nominate candidates for board positions, board itself has the ultimate say on new members. These rules do not apply to the federal and Ontario governments, which together appoint three of the 15 board members.

Roger Anderson, chairman of Durham Region, east of Toronto, said the board of the GTAA could use greater representation from municipalities.

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"What they do impacts us greatly in terms of economic development and job growth," he said on Tuesday.

Gary Carr, chairman of Halton Region, last week criticized the GTAA's handling of the response to the frigid weather, saying it needs to improve its customer service. Howard Eng, the agency's CEO, broke his silence last Thursday and pledged to release the GTAA's "action plan" after its own review.

The chairman of the GTAA, Vijay Kanwar, and a spokeswoman for the agency did not return telephone messages on Tuesday.

The GTAA was incorporated in 1993 as a private, not-for-profit agency to operate airports within the south-central Ontario region, including the Greater Toronto Area, on a commercial basis. The agency assumed responsibility for Pearson in 1996 through a ground lease arrangement with Transport Canada. The lease expires in 2056, at which point there is an option to extend it for an additional 20 years.

The goal at the time the GTAA was created was to have it represent the communities it serves, but keep politics out of its operations. Mr. Thompson, the Toronto councillor, said the city's only influence is putting forward a candidate for the board who can be rejected or accepted. The city nominated David Wilson, a former chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission and former vice-chair of the Bank of Nova Scotia, who joined the board of the GTAA in 2011.

With a report from Elizabeth Church

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Three members appointed by the federal and Ontario governments:

  • Vijay J. Kanwar, chairman – Ontario
  • W. Douglas Armstrong – Ottawa
  • Shaun C. Francis – Ottawa

Five members nominated by municipalities:

  • Ian Clarke – Durham Region
  • Scott R. Cole – York Region
  • Stephen J. Griggs – Peel Region
  • Brian P. Herner – Halton Region
  • David Wilson – City of Toronto

Three members nominated by professional groups and local boards of trade:

  • Paul W. Currie – Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario
  • Roger R. Mahabir – Toronto Region Board of Trade
  • Kathy Milsom – Professional Engineers of Ontario

Four community members:

  • Norman B. Loberg
  • Terry F. Nord
  • Poonam Puri
  • Danielle M. Waters
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