There are big plans afoot at Pearson Airport. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority has released a draft of a new master plan that explores how the airport will accommodate its unprecedented recent growth, and how it will better integrate itself into the region’s broader transit system. GTAA CEO Howard Eng recently sat down with urban scholar Richard Florida, of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, to discuss how access to the airport can and must be improved.

The discussion came on the heels of an announcement of a partnership between Metrolinx and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to cooperate on enhancing the airport’s transit access. It is part of a larger announcement made by Premier Kathleen Wynne of high-speed rail service to Kitchener and London via the airport, as well as environmental assessments for electrifying the Kitchener Line and building a bypass for freight trains that conflict with passenger operations through Brampton.

The airport authority has acquired substantial property on the east side of Airport Road, on which it plans to build a new Regional Transit and Passenger Centre. It is intended to both improve direct access to Pearson Airport, and to serve as "Union Station West"--a centrally located transit hub for the western GTA. Included in the potential routes serving the new hub are the Kitchener GO RER and high-speed rail services, the Eglinton West LRT (an extension of the Crosstown LRT), the Finch LRT, Mississauga's BRT, and various other bus services. As the largest single destination in the western GTA, Pearson is a reasonable location for a major connecting point in the region’s transit network.

Rendering of Proposed Regional Transit Centre, image courtesy of GTAA

Florida discussed the challenge of accessing Pearson, comparing it unfavourably with many other international airports. While UP Express has certainly improved transit access from downtown, Eng compared it with a “spoke” route like Heathrow Express, which connects Paddington Station in Central London with that city’s largest airport. He described a vision for Pearson to become a hub like Paddington, rather than a spoke.

The region’s rail transit system largely consists of spokes radiating from downtown Toronto. Though the plans remain amorphous, the idea of an additional nodal point in the western GTA with rapid transit routes radiating outward is a very good one. Eng pointed out that there are even more people commuting from the western GTA to the 'northern arc'—the area north of Highway 401—than are commuting to downtown Toronto. However, only 6 to 7 percent ride transit, compared with 40 percent of those headed downtown. It makes a strong case for rapid transit in that corridor, with the airport as a key anchor.

As the airport improves its transit access, it has broader plans to accommodate rapid growth. In recent years, Air Canada’s dramatic international expansion and other new services have propelled Pearson to handling 47 million passengers last year—up from only 33 million in 2011. Eng has high aspirations for the airport, expecting 50 million passengers in the near term; over the longer term, he said that 100 million in thirty years “might be an underestimation.” That is more than every airport in the world today except Atlanta.

Eng argues that Pearson’s ultimate capacity is 85 million, with additional growth needing to be accommodated at other regional airports. Such forecasts do not always stand the test of time, however. Pearson’s 2008 master plan posited that the airport’s ultimate capacity was 54 million, which was to be achievable only with the addition of two new piers at Terminal 1 and another runway. Instead, the airport has already been able to accommodate nearly that figure without any of those additions.

In part, this is because much of the growth has happened on the international side, where much larger aircraft predominate. Furthermore, airlines like Air Canada have shrunk seats to fit more passengers into existing aircraft. This has meant that the airport can move far more people without actually adding more planes—and, therefore, without needing more runway or gate capacity.

Passengers flying from the airport in recent years will have noticed that the concourses and gate areas have become increasingly crowded. Spacious, lightly used facilities come at a cost, however, and after Terminal 1 opened, Pearson was one of the most expensive airports to operate out of in the world. Airlines have made it clear that they would prefer to keep costs down, even if it means holding back on major expansion until after the halls become uncomfortably crowded. They don’t want to pay for another “Taj Mahal.” The new draft master plan—appropriately titled “Growing Responsibly”—is a reflection of these new realities.

Former Regional Pier, image by user Hometoyyz

One of the first examples of the new approach is the expansion of the temporary gate area for US-bound regional flights, located on the site of the long-planned Pier G. It was a notoriously Spartan facility with prefabricated construction and limited seating, accessed through what feels like an emergency exit staircase. Though the access route has not yet been improved, the gate area has been transformed.

Expanded Regional Pier, image by Jonathan English

While it lacks the spectacular architecture of the main terminal building, there is now much more seating and construction is now underway for additional gates on the other side of the pier. The master plan suggests that this relatively low-cost expansion project will substitute for the billion-dollar Pier G in the short to medium-term.

Expanded Regional Pier, image by Jonathan Englis

Further growth will be accommodated with a new Pier H, which will be to the east of the existing terminal and will likely handle US-bound flights along with the expanded regional pier. This will free up capacity on the existing Pier F for additional international flights. Eng also suggested that some of the atrium spaces might be filled in to provide additional space for seating and concessions. Larger and more densely packed aircraft are taxing the airport’s existing gate seating areas.

The draft master plan’s proposals for the longer-term future remain vague. One of the more startling possibilities was disclosed through an artist’s concept of the proposed Regional Transit Centre. It entailed the conversion of the existing terminals into remote “island” piers, presumably accessed by trains from a new check-in area east of Airport Road on the transit centre site. This radical rethinking of the airport’s design—shifting it to a remote pier model like Atlanta and many other modern airports—would be a dramatic shift. Such a conversion of existing terminal facilities has never occurred at a major international airport. That approach was also considered and discarded during the planning process prior to the construction of the current Terminal 1. Eng said that it was only one of many possibilities for added capacity in the longer term.

Toronto Pearson Transit Hub concept plan, image courtesy of the GTAA

The GTAA has continued to protect for an additional east-west runway, though they don’t believe it will be necessary in the current planning horizon to 2037. It is not considered in the master plan, but in the far long term, it is also theoretically possible that a fifth east-west runway could be accommodated at the centre of the airport property, though it would likely require some land acquisition on the western end. The existing runways are sufficiently spaced so that regulations would permit aircraft landing on this hypothetical runway to arrive at the same time as those on the northern and southern runway pairs. A triple independent parallel approach is used at many of the world’s busiest airports, like Atlanta, Beijing, and Chicago.

Given the larger and more densely packed aircraft now operating and the abundance of land available for expanded terminals, Toronto is blessed with a well-located airport with plenty of room for growth. This is a situation that other cities like New York and London certainly envy.

Terminal 1 remains a beautiful facility. Even if the new expansions do not rise quite to its lavish standard, the trade-off of dramatically improved accessibility, an enormous array of new destinations, and lower fares seems like a good one.

Jonathan English (@EnglishRail) is a doctoral candidate in Urban Planning at Columbia University.