The Montreal Mirabel Airport: When a piece of the project plan is missing

12 October 2015
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What was announced in 1969 to be the project of the 21st Century by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, ended up being known as Canada’s biggest white elephant.

It was a project that faced many obstacles from the start. Starting with the Liberal government of Trudeau choosing the location of the airport, 55km from northwest downtown Montreal, against the wishes of Quebec. The province had their eyes set on a site south of the St. Lawrence River. In turn, they refused to complete road and transit systems to the airport. This is arguably the fall of what may have made the airport a success.

The Vision

The project of the Montreal Mirabel airport was announced in 1969. It was envisioned to be the largest airport in the world (and thereby the most expensive): a whopping 98,000 acres (the King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia which was built in 1999, did surpass this surface area). Slated to open one year before the Summer Olympics in Montreal, the intention was to make it the new gateway to Canada on the east coast – replacing Dorval Airport. This means that all international flights (except for the United States) to and from Montreal were required to go through Mirabel.

The Execution

Space needed to be cleared for such a large undertaking; this unfortunately led to the government seizing 100,000 acres of private land. Let’s stop for a moment and recognize that this is larger than the entire city of Montreal. The result, was 2,000 residents being forced out of their homes. The cost to acquire this obscenely large acreage, cost eight times the original projection, for total of $140 million.

The Outcome

The doors to the airport opened in 1975, for a total (inflated) price tag of approximately $300 million (over $1 billion today); not exactly chump change. The result was a beautiful airport that won a prize for its design. It was built in a way where travellers wouldn’t have to walk long distances; it was only 200 feet from the parking lot to the aircraft. But that didn’t count for much considering they found it too difficult and too expensive to actually get to the airport. So much so, that 13 years in, the airport was only handling 2.5 million passengers a year, compared to the estimated 50 million. A year later, in 1989, 81,000 acres of the 98,000 initially acquired, were deeded back to their owners. And eventually airlines stated to bypass Mirabel for Dorval. The airport ceased airline operations in 2004; since then, the airport was used for cargo shipping and as a set for movie productions. In May of 2014, it was announced that the airport would be demolished.

The Lesson

Although the Mirabel airport, was based on plans for speedy transit to and from the airport, the fall of this significant piece of the puzzle resulted in some MAJOR losses. The project did not adapt to this considerable change and it suffered the consequences – consequences that should have been relatively conceivable. When one large piece of a project plan falls through, it can’t simply be overlooked in a stubborn attempt to see it to completion. It must either be addressed with a new solution, or the project should be halted altogether.

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