Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, (or Montreal International (Mirabel) Airport) originally called Montreal International Airport and widely known simply as Mirabel is an airport located in Mirabel, Quebec, near Montreal and was opened 4 October 1975. Until 1989, it was the second largest airport in the world in terms of area (98,000 acres/396.6 km²/153.125 mi²), and was only surpassed by the King Fahd International Airport. In 1989, 81,000 of the 98,000 acres were deeded back to their owners. The predominant role of the airport is cargo flights but it is also home to MEDEVACs and general aviation flights as well as being a manufacturing base for Bombardier Aerospace, where final assembly of regional jet (CRJ700 and CRJ900) aircraft is conducted.
It was intended to replace the existing Dorval Airport (now Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport) as the eastern air gateway to Canada; from 1975 to 1997, all international flights to/from Montreal were required to use Mirabel. However, Mirabel's distant location and lack of transport links, as well as Montreal's economic decline relative to Toronto, made it unpopular with airlines and travelers, so Dorval was not closed as originally planned. Eventually, Mirabel was relegated to the simple role of a cargo airport. Initially a source of pride, the airport eventually became an embarrassment widely regarded in Canada as being a boondoggle and a white elephant.
The airport is classifed as an airport of entry by NAV CANADA and is staffed by the Canada Border Services Agency. CBSA officers at this airport currently can handle general aviation aircraft only with no more than 15 passengers.
Technically speaking, it is one of two airports in Canada with sufficient right-of-way that can be expanded to accommodate 50 million passengers per year, the other being Toronto Pearson International Airport, though a lack of traffic meant that Mirabel was never expanded beyond its first phase. It is the only non-capital airport with fewer than 200,000 passengers a year to be part of the National Airports System.
The Canadian Ministry of Transport studied five possible sites for Montreal's new airport: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (50 km to the southeast), Vaudreuil (40 km to the west), Joliette (70km to the north), St-Amable (30 km to the northeast), and St. Scholastique (60 km to the northwest).
The federal government proposed that the airport should be located at Vaudreuil. This location was well connected by existing road and rail routes, as well as being close enough to serve the population of the city; furthermore it could serve as the gateway to Ottawa as well as Montreal. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who had a frosty relationship with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, reportedly did not want such an important project to be placed so close to the Ontario border. The Bourassa government preferred that the new airport be situated in Drummondville (100 km to the east).
The federal government expropriation resulted in making Mirabel the world's largest airport by property area. (King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia later surpassed Mirabel as the world's largest airport by property area, a record it still retains). This attracted the ire of local residents who were forced to move. The airport's operations zone, which encompassed what was eventually built plus expansion room, amounted to only 17,000 acres (69 km²), or about 19% of the total area of the airport. The federal government planned to use the excess land as a noise buffer and as an industrial development zone that was never started. The people of St. Scholastique protested vehemently against the expropriation of their land. Nevertheless, construction started in June 1970 under the auspices of BANAIM, a government organization formed to build the airport.
High-speed rail transit (the system was to be capable of speeds from 100 to 120 km/h (60 to 75 mph) for the Montreal-Mirabel run), initially to be called TRRAMM (Transport Rapide Régional Aéroportuaire Montréal-Mirabel), was intended to be completed at a later date. However, it never got beyond the drawing board. The TRRAMM system was also intended to eventually be expanded to other parts of the Montreal region. The major stumbling block for the TRRAMM project was funding. The federal, provincial, and municipal governments never managed to find enough cash to fund the highly ambitious and expensive rapid transit project. Thus, Mirabel was forced to cope with an inadequate road system and non-existent rail transit, supplemented only by express buses run by Société de transport de Montréal (Montreal Transit Corporation).
After 1976, the airport began to decline in importance due to the increasing use in the 1980s of longer-range jets that did not need to refuel in Montreal before crossing the Atlantic. This trend, commenced during the airport's planning stages, coupled with Montreal's decline as Canada's leading business centre in favour of Toronto, dramatically reduced the amount of projected air traffic into Dorval. The result was that a second airport was no longer needed.
To ensure the airport's survival, all international flights for Montreal were banned from Dorval from 1975 to 1997. This created resentment among Montrealers who were forced to travel far out of town for their flights, and to take long bus rides for connections from domestic to international flights. Many international airlines, faced with the stark economic reality of operating two Canadian points of entry, opted to overfly Montreal by landing in Toronto instead with its better domestic and US connections. Over time the decreasing passenger flights began to take a toll on businesses within the airport, particularly notable was the 354 room Chateau Aeroport-Mirabel hotel adjacent to the terminal, which was force to shut down in 2002 after 25 years of operation.
No legislation similar to the Wright Amendment was enacted that would force airlines to use Mirabel instead of Dorval, due to public pressure in support of Dorval. However, Dorval's continued existence made Mirabel comparatively expensive and unattractive to airlines and travelers alike (Dorval was only 20 minutes away from the city core, while it took 50 minutes to get to Mirabel in ideal traffic conditions). Supporters of making Mirabel the sole international airport of Montreal pointed out that it had the capacity to be expanded significantly to meeting growing demand, unlike Dorval. They also noted that Dorval could be closed and its land be developed for prime real estate, the profits which could go towards improving access to Mirabel. Combined with Montreal's decline in comparison with Toronto and the failure of passenger numbers to grow at the rates expected, Mirabel became a pariah airport in Canada, with only Air Transat holding out until the very end.
The initial location of Mirabel was supposed to be a selling point, not only because of expansion room, but as the afforded buffer would significantly reduce noise pollution in urban areas. However, advances in engine technology have significantly reduced aircraft noise. Inner city airports such as Dallas Love Field and San Diego International Airport are examples of successful inner-city airports that live with city-dwellers around them.
One resident whose farm was expropriated was interviewed in the late 1990s by Maclean's. He was particularly critical of the federal government for not closing Dorval as well as failing to recognize Mirabel's potential, saying that his land was "sacrificed to save the city".
With very little or, later, no airline service, and with many empty spaces inside its terminal, Mirabel has been the setting of several movies, TV series, and commercials for many years. The movie The Terminal features the mezzanine overlooking the immigration desks and the baggage carousels directly behind them, the tarmac and the main terminal entrance (with a digitally added New York skyline reflection). All other terminal scenes were shot elsewhere.
In 2006, I-Parks Creative Industries, a French firm that specializes in the creation of urban tourist attractions, and Oger International SA, the global engineering company owned by the family of slain former Lebanese prime minister and entrepreneur Rafik Hariri, entered into an agreement to turn Mirabel into a theme park. The proposed concept of the park is based on the theme of water and outer space. As of August, 2008, negotiations, market research, and technical assessments are ongoing, and construction has not started.
In December 2006, in a move he called "correcting a historical injustice," Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the return of 4,450 hectares of farmland expropriated to build Mirabel airport. About 125 farmers, who rent their land from the federal government, were permitted to buy it back. Harper said he was pleased to finish the work started by former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who unlocked a major parcel of expropriated land during his first term in office in 1985.
In May 2007, it was reported that the International Center of Advanced Racing had signed a 25 year lease with Aéroports de Montréal to use part of the airport as a race track. At the same time fixed base operator, Hélibellule, opened a facility at the site to cater for the private jets that were expected. The company also provides a passenger service from Mirabel to destinations in Canada and the United States. They operate three different types of helicopters; Bell 222, Robinson R22 and Aérospatiale Gazelle.
In August 2007, AirMédic moved from its base at Montreal/Saint-Hubert Airport to Mirabel. AirMédic is a non-profit humane foundation serving the population of Quebec and its visitors with the service of air ambulances. It offers MEDEVAC flights using a Eurocopter Dauphin.
In August 2008, the Metropolitan Transit Agency (AMT in French) said it was willing to expand its commuter rail service to the airport if passenger traffic were to return. This is quite ironic since the MTA is also working to bring rail service to Trudeau Airport and had never shown interest in serving Mirabel when there was passenger traffic.
Many locals think that Trudeau airport is too small of an airport for the number of passengers passing through it. As well there is not much room to expand the airport for the future therefore might result in returning to Mirabel.
Mirabel was designed to be eventually expanded to six runways as well as six terminal buildings. The expansion was supposed to occur in a number of phases and be completed by 2025. However, the airport never got beyond the first phase of construction, and by October 2005 runway 11/29 was closed leaving only runway 06/24 operational.
From the furthest reach of the parking lot to the airplane seat, one can walk as little as 200 metres. A train station was also built in the basement for the planned TRRAMM service, right below the main passenger concourse. Today, it is used as an employee parking lot.
Designed by architects Papineau-Gérin-Lajoie, Mirabel's terminal carried over their creator's award-winning Expo 67 Quebec pavilion design. A simple minimalist dark glass box sitting on top of a concrete bunker housing maintenance services, the terminal was hailed as an architectural triumph when it first opened. The first and only terminal was designed to handle six million passengers per year.
Passengers walked as little as 100 metres going from the curb to the gate. Once there, passengers would be transported to their aircraft by Passenger Transfer Vehicles (PTVs), rather than walking through jetways. The PTVs, similar to those at Washington Dulles International Airport, ran from the terminal to the aircraft parking spot on the ramp. It was reported by Radio-Canada/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that each of these vehicles had cost up to C$ 400,000 at the time. To eventually make connections between flights easier, the terminal also included a few jetways, in a smaller concourse called the Aeroquay, accessible via an underground tunnel and later connected directly to the main concourse.
Other airlines to have flown to Mirabel at some point were Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeroméxico, Air India, Corsairfly, Cubana de Aviación, Finnair, Jaro International, Jat Airways, LOT Polish Airlines, Peoplexpress Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian, TAROM, and Varig. Most gradually lost faith in Mirabel and either transferred to Dorval in 1997 or pulled out of Montreal altogether.
Several charter airlines also served Mirabel, such as Wardair, Nolisair, Canada 3000 and Royal Aviation. All four have either merged or gone out of business. Air Transat is the only charter airline that started operations at Mirabel and stayed until the end of passenger service in 2004.
Today, the major transport users of Mirabel are cargo airlines, which include: