The Little Airport That Grew

By Sarah B. Hood | December 14, 2011

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 7 seconds.

The planned closure of Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport  one of Canada busiest airports, and a general aviation gem  has left many hoping a nearby successor will soon be crowned. 

You might call it the biggest little airport in the country. Privately owned Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport (CYKZ) is one of Canada busiest airports; however, the facility is set to close within a few years, with its land earmarked for redevelopment and its businesses facing relocation.

Situated in Markham, Ont., about 18 miles (some 30 kilometres) north of Toronto, Buttonville began its rise to prominence in 1963, when it was purchased by Michael C. Sifton (of the famed Sifton family, whose history in Canadian politics and business dates back to before Confederation). Sifton had started his career in newspaper publishing  his family Armadale Corp. owned two Saskatchewan dailies, the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon The StarPhoenix  but later also helped grow the Sifton business empire to include various other newspapers, television and radio stations, a record company, and real estate properties (including the lands surrounding Buttonville Airport). Sifton son Derek is currently in charge of Buttonville, as president of Toronto Airways Ltd., the company Michael formed in 1963 to run the airport and buy out his partners at the time. 

Derek Sifton said that soon after it was formed, Toronto Airways was sold to his family Armadale holding company, and the larger growth and transformation of Buttonville, which had only become an official airport in 1962, began. Although now a major general and commercial aviation facility, in the very beginning, more than a decade before the Siftons, said Derek, It was basically a grass strip and a metal hangar, when 16th Avenue [one of Markham main east-west routes] was a dirt road and Highway 404 didn’t exist. As they say, the rest is history; we’ve basically built it into one of Canada top 10 busiest airports.

Unpaved Beginnings

The foundations of Buttonville Airport trace back to when Jim Leggat moved his burgeoning aircraft services company, Leggat Aviation Ltd., to that small grass airstrip in 1953. Other aviation businesses eventually followed, and the growth of the airport in turn affected the direction and growth of Leggat Aviation. As John Leggat, the company current vice-president and director of maintenance, recalled, As the airport has grown, [our] business has grown to accommodate the new types of airplanes that now come to Buttonville.

As a high school student, Leggat first worked at Buttonville in 1965, moving into full-time work in 1975. He saw, first-hand, Michael Sifton visionary nature, and how that contributed to the airport success. One particular memory he shared involved Sifton erecting a sign in what was essentially  before the construction of Highway 404  the middle of nowhere. When he put it up, the sign overlooked farmers’ fields, and people said, What are you doing?’ But he knew that [if he waited until] after the highway went through, he would have no authority to erect a sign next to the 404.

These days, Buttonville averages 160,000 to 170,000 aircraft movements annually, and serves a broad range of general aviation needs. We have a real mix here, said Derek Sifton. We have several charter departments, private companies like Magna International that own their planes, and Seneca College, which has a thriving [flight training] program . . . .

Toronto Airways also operates its own flight training program at Buttonville, and the airport hosts diverse organizations like the York Regional Police; Ontario Provincial Police; Toronto Police Service; the Canadian Traffic Network, which uses a helicopter for traffic reporting; and the Buttonville Flying Club, which accounts for about 70 of our 300 airplanes, said Sifton. The airport also houses sales and maintenance facilities like Leggat, Air Partners Inc. and Aviation Unlimited Inc.

Many notable figures have flown in and out of Buttonville, too, including political figures, and actors like Tom Cruise of Top Gun fame, who reputedly took lessons there. More importantly, said Sifton, Our airport and Toronto Airways are really a training ground. We’re training the pilots and aviation technicians of tomorrow. The airport even has partnerships as far afield as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. That something we can be proud of over the past 40-odd years.

But, these days the future of Buttonville is in flux. Within a few years after Michael Sifton death in 1995, rumours began circulating that the airport might close. In 2006, Nav Canada announced it would invest over $2 million Cdn to build an air traffic control tower at Buttonville to replace the one that had been in use since 1967  but it was designed as a modular structure that could be moved to a new facility. Then, in 2009 the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) cancelled its $1.5-million annual capacity maintenance subsidy, effectively forcing Toronto Airways’ hand.

An Uncertain Future

On Oct. 26, 2010, Armadale and Cadillac Fairview announced a joint venture to redevelop the 170-acre site into a residential and commercial area. We intend to take the project through a redevelopment process, said Derek Sifton. the same time, we hope to move our current business, ideally to the Pickering airport lands.

However, the future of the Pickering lands, which were earmarked as a potential airport location about 40 years ago, is not certain. Whereas the GTAA 2010 Needs Assessment Study – Pickering Lands found a need for an airport on that site, Transport Canada said no additional airport will likely be needed until sometime between 2027 and 2037. And, a lobby group called VOCAL, Voters Organized to Cancel the Airport Lands, continues to oppose the Pickering alternative.

While some suggest air traffic, training and related businesses could be spread out among the growing Oshawa Municipal Airport (CYOO) and facilities in Peterborough, Barrie, Brampton, Kitchener, Hamilton and/or Burlington, others say the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) needs a closer option. When Buttonville closes, the ripple effect will be felt far and wide  much farther than most people, even in aviation, would like to think, said Kevin Psutka, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA).

Psutka predicts a drop-off in big business travel to Toronto, a decline in aircraft parts and servicing business, and an impact on flight training. In my estimation, 79,000 to 80,000 of the movements will not be accommodated [by other airports]. In August 2011, COPA commissioned planning firm Malone Given Parsons to further examine the Pickering lands situation, and arm COPA with recommendations it can take to the federal government.

Current Buttonville users, meanwhile, continue to express hope that an alternate site will be located as close to Toronto as possible. We can relocate to any place; however, I don’t think it good for the city, said Solly Capua, president and owner of Aviation Unlimited. It would not be right for the whole city of Toronto not to have a general aviation airport. I’m passionate about it, not because of how it going to affect Aviation Unlimited, but because I’m concerned about business for Toronto.

Sam Barone, president and CEO of the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA), is equally passionate: Buttonville is a real gem; it a very important facility for corporate aviation. The FAA [United States Federal Aviation Administration] and U.S. government undertook a secondary airport plan’ among large metropolitan areas. In Canada, we didn’t have that.

Most of the CBAA members are among Canada top employers, and the economic impact of our members is in the billions. We’re operating sophisticated jets that can go overseas. If you’re the CEO of a mining or banking company, you don’t want to be in Hamilton or Waterloo; you want to be close to where you’re going. Once Buttonville closes, we would like to have other options that maintain our access to the GTA.

For now, an official spokesperson for Transport Canada said only that, If the airport closes, current users have options in the Greater Toronto Area, and each will have to choose depending on their individual needs and circumstances.

Said John Leggat, It will be a sad day, regardless of what down the road, when Buttonville closes. It a legacy, it an institution within Canada, and it a tribute to the gentleman who made it happen.

Fortunately, Buttonville closure is still a few years away, said Derek Sifton. And, until that time We are open for business and we’re definitely not in shutdown mode. Any corporate traveller who wants to come to the GTA, we’re more than happy to look after them.

Sarah B. Hood is a Toronto author and journalist who has contributed to dozens of newsstand and trade publications. She has been shortlisted for both the National Magazine Awards and the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for business writing.

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