Airport | The Canadian Encyclopedia



For statistical and administrative purposes, the federal government has divided the Canadian airport system into 5 major classes of airports: international, national, regional, local commercial and local.
Winnipeg International Airport
Designed by Green, Blankstein, Russell Architects (photo by Henry Kalen).
Vancouver Airport, Exterior
The Vancouver International Airport is located 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver (photo by Jim Jorgerson).


An aerodrome is any area of land, water (including frozen surfaces) or other supporting surface used for the arrival, departure, movement or servicing of aircraft, together with any ancillary buildings and other installations. In Canada, an airport is an aerodrome that has been certified by the federal minister of transport to be operated according to the conditions stated in the airport certification document. Canada's highly developed air transportation includes 10 major airports and over 300 smaller airports with towers. In 1997, there were 44 airports with towers, down from the high of 61 between 1983 and 1987. In addition, there are many small private airports without towers. An airport may be a large, busy international port of entry such as Vancouver International, which covers approximately 1440 hectares of area, or a small heliport requiring as little as 346 square metres.

Airport Classification

An airport supports 2 types of aviation activity: commercial and private. Commercial aviation activities are those which use an aircraft for hire or reward. Activities range from international and domestic air passenger and freight transportation, carried out by the major airlines, to specialty functions such as flight training, crop dusting or aerial photography. The aircraft used in commercial activities can be as large as a Boeing 747 or a Hercules freighter or as small as a Piper Cub. Private aviation, on the other hand, includes aircraft operations that are for the direct benefit of organizations or individuals using their own aircraft which are not offered for hire to others. The aircraft used in private activities range from corporate jets the size of airliners to ultra-light motorized hang gliders.

For statistical and administrative purposes, the federal government has divided the Canadian airport system into 5 major classes of airports: international, national, regional, local commercial and local. This structure groups airports together according to the presence of commercial air services and the number and type of unit-toll route networks connected to the airport. Unit toll is defined as the public transportation of persons, mail or goods by aircraft. Air carriers are awarded a licence which allows them to use a certain class size of aircraft to conduct specified unit-toll services on stated routes between communities.

The international and national classes of airports form the backbone of the Canadian unit-toll air carrier system. There are 22 airports so classified and these airports support all scheduled international travel and most interprovincial domestic travel. For the most part, these airports are located in major urban areas of Canada and in all provincial and territorial capitals. The international airports are so named because they act as gateways or points of access for aircraft arriving from or departing for other airports outside Canada and beyond the continental US. Flights to and from the continental US are called "transborder." Although a subset of international flights for statistical purposes, these flights are not considered to be pure international flights for the purpose of classifying Canadian airports. The regional class airports act as hubs, collecting localized unit-toll services from smaller airports and providing direct access to the larger international or national airports. A local commercial airport supports the most localized unit-toll service. These airports most likely will have fixed-base operators such as crop dusters, flying schools and small charter outfitters, and may support corporate aircraft. A local airport is one that is not a fixed base or point of call for commercial activity.


In 1997, Canadian airports processed 78.5 million enplaned/deplaned air passengers. The table displays selected statistics for Canada's 25 busiest airports, based on the number of enplaned/deplaned (E/D) revenue air passengers accommodated at that airport. An enplaned revenue passenger is defined as a person who purchased a ticket and boards an aircraft at an airport and a deplaned passenger is one who purchased a ticket and gets off an aircraft at an airport. Toronto-Lester B. Pearson International was Canada's busiest airport in 1997, handling 22.7 million enplaned/deplaned revenue air passengers. There were 4 997 000 aircraft movements (counted whenever an aircraft takes off or lands at an airport) in Canada, 395 637 at Pearson, making it the busiest airport in aircraft movements. In 1996, aircraft transported 759 468 000 kg of cargo to and from Canada. Aircraft fuel consumption for that year was 5.3 billion litres.

Major Components and Activities

People who use an airport do not always realize the complexity of functions carried out there and the impact that the airport can have on the community. Airports represent a large capital investment; from initially assembling land to the actual building of facilities. Once operational an airport can generate major employment in the community. A large international airport can employ as many as 20 000 people, including government officials, airline personnel, clerks behind the car rental booths, restaurant personnel, etc. Its presence also supports many off-airport employment opportunities in service industries such as taxi companies, delivery companies, and aviation supply companies all serving related airport functions.

Any typical unit-toll land airport, regardless of the level of demand, has 3 major components: the groundside; the air passenger terminal building (ATB); and the airside. The individual facilities found within each of these major components must have the capability and capacity to accommodate the specific demand for which they have been designed. The groundside component is the area directly accessible to the public outside the ATB. It includes most ground transportation facilities such as the access/egress roadways leading to the ATB, the service roads to specific airport functional areas (such as air cargo terminals, maintenance garages, firehall), vehicular parking facilities (both surface lots and structures), and the processing curbs in front of the ATB. To accommodate the vehicular demand these facilities sometimes have to be very extensive. For example, at Toronto-Lester B. Pearson International there are approximately 7600 public parking spaces available on the airport property. In a normal day as many as 84 000 surface vehicular trips will be generated to and from the airport involving private automobiles, buses, taxis and cargo vehicles.

The groundside also includes related support functions such as hangars, fuel-storage areas and general aviation facilities that require airside access. At large airports, administration complexes and other commercial facilities such as hotels can be situated on the groundside.

The ATB is the transfer point between the aircraft and surface travel for passengers. The functional design and requirements of the building take into account factors such as the design of aircraft to be accommodated, airline operational schedules, types of air service provided and the level of service that the airport operator wishes to provide. These factors have an impact on the type of functional areas required and more importantly on the amount of floor space required for each functional area. Again, taking Toronto-Lester B. Pearson as an example, 40-60 000 air passengers daily must be accommodated by the 2 terminals during the busiest 14- to 16-hour period of operation, as well as twice that many greeters and well-wishers.

The final design of an ATB can take many different forms. It can be centralized with fingers (corridors leading to the parked aircraft such as exist at Calgary International); it can be linear (a long, narrow building with the aircraft parked at doorways called gates on one side of the ATB for the loading/unloading of passengers, as at Terminal 2 at Toronto); or it can be transporter, with special passenger transfer vehicles for transporting air passengers to/from remote aircraft parking aprons. Montréal International Airport (Mirabel) is an example of this concept. Each concept performs functionally better for certain types of air service. The linear type is a good design for pure international travel with minimum air passenger connections required between flights. A centralized concept is more functionally suited to a mix of domestic and international services where there is a high percentage of connecting air passengers.

The airside component consists of the part of the airport that is not accessible to the public without proper authorization. It includes the runways where the aircraft take off and land, the taxiways used for the movement of aircraft between the runway and the gate areas adjacent to the ATB, and air cargo terminals where the aircraft load and unload passengers and cargo and are serviced. The airside component is designed according to the type and mix of aircraft expected to use the site, the topographical and environmental factors affecting that location and the amount of traffic expected annually.

Development of Canadian Airports

The first flight in Canada took place at Baddeck, NS, by J.A. McCurdy in 1909. The first Canadian airport was located at Long Branch, Toronto, in 1915. It was operated by the Curtiss Flying School, part of Curtiss Aeroplanes and Motors Ltd, with the primary purpose of training pilots for the war effort. After the war, with many aircraft available, entrepreneurs felt that civil air transport could be used to provide transportation services to the public. When the Canadian Pacific Railway requested legislation to extend its charter to include the operation of aircraft, Parliament passed the Air Board Act in 1919 to administer and control civil aviation. Part of the board's mandate was to make regulations with respect to licensing, inspection and regulation of all aerodromes and airstations. It was also given the responsibility for constructing and maintaining all government aerodromes and military airstrips.

In the 1920s and 1930s, development of airports lagged behind the technological advances of the aircraft. In 1928 the government decided to construct the Trans-Canada Airway and to provide financial assistance to local flying clubs to upgrade existing airstrips. The purpose of this assistance was to develop a chain of airports operated by municipalities or cities across the country along the airway to cater to commercial aviation. In 1937 Parliament created Trans-Canada Airlines, the forerunner of Air Canada. The federal government, in the interest of safety, decided to construct intermediate aerodromes at approximately 160 km intervals between municipal airports across the country. The new Department of Transport undertook the cost of this development as well as airport development at those municipalities that were unwilling to upgrade their existing airstrips. WWII necessitated the construction of 148 new military airfields and forced the federal government to assume control of 59 municipal airports in support of Canada's war effort. After the war most of these airports were handed back to the local municipalities or taken over by the federal Department of Transport.

The general economic prosperity and growth experienced in the country during the late 1950s and all through the 60s created a greater propensity to travel. The new jet technology, which allows larger passenger aircraft, longer flying range and greater fuel efficiency, reduced the cost of travelling by air. Coupled with greater consumer discretionary spending ability, the demand for air travel increased dramatically. Existing airport facilities required frequent upgrading and expansion to meet this increasing demand for the movement of passengers and goods and to support the ever-increasing number and size of aircraft. Most local municipalities did not have the expertise or the finances to assume responsibility for the continual need for improvements. Thus, the federal government assumed responsibility for the development and operation of most major airports in order to maintain a safe and efficient national system. These airports comprise the international, national and most regional airports.

Security at Canadian Airports

At each major airport there are airport security committees, emergency plans, personal identification systems and passes, airport safety plans and restricted access zones within airport boundaries in order to secure and protect anyone making use of the airport, as well as to protect airport property. The most visible aspects are the RCMP officers stationed at the airport and the passenger and carry-on baggage security checks located between terminal waiting areas and the air passenger holdrooms where the passengers obtain their boarding passes. These security check stations are equipped to detect the presence of metallic objects or explosive devices.

Security measures were first introduced at major Canadian airports in 1973 and have since been implemented at all unit-toll airports across the country. These measures were necessary because of the increasing number of aircraft hijackings occurring at airports in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, organized terrorist groups have used aircraft hijackings as a means of obtaining global news coverage of their cause. Such actions have resulted in threats to aircraft passengers. New measures include security devices that can detect the presence of concentrations of chemicals found in explosive devices and the baggage/passenger match system for international flights. This match system is designed to ensure that all baggage on the aircraft belongs to the passengers of that flight. When a bag cannot be matched to a passenger it will be removed before the aircraft takes off.

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