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Montreal, PQ, Canada - November 15, 2015: Airline passengers waiting in line to pass through airport security at Pierre Eliott Trudeau airport (DoucetPh/iStockphoto)
Montreal, PQ, Canada - November 15, 2015: Airline passengers waiting in line to pass through airport security at Pierre Eliott Trudeau airport (DoucetPh/iStockphoto)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Blame Montreal’s airport folly on a broken management model Add to ...

Perhaps no three words in the French language generate more fear and loathing among air travellers these days than “Bienvenue à Montréal.”

To land in Canada’s second-largest city from an overseas or U.S. destination means experiencing customs wait times that stretch up to two hours (the worst in the country) and traffic bottlenecks exiting the airport that rival those of a developing country.

Almost none of this is the fault of Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), the non-profit authority that runs Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport under a long-term lease from the federal government. ADM does the best it can, with limited financial resources and no control over customs or highways.

But while the management model Ottawa adopted for Canada’s airports more than two decades ago has been a good deal for the federal government, it’s clearly not working for Montreal.

ADM faces the greatest infrastructure deficit and highest cost structure of any major Canadian airport. Tack on the failure of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to fix the long-running problem of endless customs lineups, long wait times for luggage and taxis, a single traffic lane on the arrivals level and the Quebec government’s failure to complete a new highway interchange into the airport – after a decade under construction – and you have an idea of the ordeal facing Montreal travellers.

It’s not just an inconvenience. The lost productivity caused by travel delays, and the diversion of passenger traffic to nearby U.S. airports to avoid them, are a major drag on the city’s economy.

Montreal’s business leaders have had enough. This month, a group led by ADM chief executive officer James Cherry and Montreal Board of Trade president Michel Leblanc wrote an open letter to Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale to complain about the CBSA’s foot-dragging.

“The higher traffic levels that Montreal-Trudeau has experienced this summer are not a surprise,” they said, noting that the arrival of new carriers and expanded seasonal schedules of other airlines was known by CBSA well in advance. “The customs wait times … are unacceptable and tarnish Montreal’s image as a [global] metropolis.”

While wait times were even worse than usual this summer, the problem has been chronic. Data provided to La Presse by CBSA show that Montreal-Trudeau has had the longest customs wait times of any major Canadian airport for several years running, far surpassing those at Toronto’s much larger Lester B. Pearson International Airport. That’s despite a higher number of wickets and electronic kiosks – although many of them are often closed.

The customs delays are an aggravation for ADM as it seeks to adapt Montreal-Trudeau for traffic levels it was never designed to accommodate. Almost 15 million passengers passed through Montreal-Trudeau last year, allowing the airport to reclaim the No. 3 spot nationally. But limited financial resources mean it has had to expand its main terminal in patchwork fashion, rather than building a new one worthy of a major city.

This is the legacy left by the airport’s namesake, Pierre Trudeau, whose decision to build a massive new airport north of the city in 1975 haunts Montreal still. Mirabel never took off, owing to its far-flung location and the rise of Quebec separatism. In 1997, all flights were repatriated to Dorval Airport, now called Montreal-Trudeau.

Mirabel survives as an all-cargo airport. But its main runway needs $50-million in repairs and ADM warned in its 2015 annual report that “from a strictly financial point of view, such an investment is simply not profitable” under the airport authority’s current ownership structure.

That model forces ADM to pay frothy rents to Ottawa under its long-term lease and the highest per-passenger municipal taxes of any major Canadian airport. The rent problem is not unique to Montreal, and was criticized as a drag on Canada’s competitiveness in the February review of the Canada Transportation Act chaired by former federal cabinet minister David Emerson.

“Canada is unique among its competitors in charging onerous rents and taxes that undermine competitiveness,” the review committee’s final report said. “Airport rents, for example, can represent up to 30 per cent of airport operating budgets, far more than would be expected in dividends and income tax from a private, for-profit airport, such as those in Europe.”

Mr. Cherry, who is stepping down at the end of the year, has called for Ottawa to consider privatizing ADM, enabling it to issue shares and debt more easily, instead of charging passengers “airport improvement fees.” Federal Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier also favours this option.

For now, Montreal travellers would be happy just getting through customs in less time than it takes to watch an in-flight movie.

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