Abandoned Montreal Mirabel Airport

The Failure of Montréal Mirabel International Airport

1976 was to be a glorious year for Montreal. After 3 bids to host the Olympic games and 4 to host the Winter Olympics, they were finally given the honour of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. The eyes of the world would be on Montreal and Canada.

Nadia Comăneci Montreal Olympics
Romanian Nadia Comăneci was the star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At just 14, she became the first gymnast to receive a perfect 10. She went to score another 6 on her way to 3 gold medals.

Montreal’s first bid to host the Summer Olympics came in 1944 but they received no votes. London won the right to host the games although they were eventually cancelled due to World War II. The city’s next bid in 1956 and yet again received no votes, finishing last of the 10 bid cities. The third bid was in 1972. They finished second to Munich in what would end up being quite a controversial games, mainly due to the Munich massacre in which eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer were killed by Palestinian Black September members.

As the vote for the 1976 Olympics drew near, Toronto appealed to the Canadian Olympic Committee to let them bid for the games but they decided to stick with Montreal. The other bids came from Moscow and Los Angeles and they were seen as favourites due to being located in the world’s main powers. With the Cold War raging, many countries advocated for Montreal as a neutral site and they won the vote. It was a real underdog story worthy of the Olympic Games.

Montreal Olympics Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The stadium was still not completely finished by the time the Olympics started.

Canada mobilised behind Montreal, aiming to create an extraordinary Olympic Games. The initial budget was C$120m however this ballooned to over C$1.5billion, 13 times more than planned! The cost overrun is by far the highest of any Olympic Games in history. The Olympic Stadium wasn’t completed in time for the games and it would be the 1980s before the tower and the retractable roof were added. The roof never really worked and the Kevlar from which it was made from ripped often. It continues to have structural problems to this day.

Montreal Olympic Stadium AKA The Big O
Montreal Olympic Stadium or The Big O to locals. It has jokingly been referred to as The Big Owe because of how much debt it left the city with.

The massive cost overruns for the Olympic Games were just the tip of the iceberg for the city of Montreal. Those costs didn’t include the road, rail and air infrastructure needed to host an event on such a large scale. For example, a major expansion of the Montreal Metro was planned but it too ran over budget and wasn’t completed in time for the Olympics. Another expensive project was Montréal Mirabel Airport which turned out to be a massive white elephant and a headache for the city for many years to come.

The original idea of a new airport for Montreal came in the 1960s as the city experienced a boost in visitors as a result of an economic boom and the hosting of Expo 67. All European airlines flying into Canada were required to stop in Montreal and as a result, the existing Dorval Airport was seeing significant growth in passenger numbers. It was decided a new airport should be built to allow for the continued increase in traffic and a site was chosen. An area of 39,250 hectares (97,000 acres) was purchased to create the world’s largest airport by property area. It was bigger than the entire city of Montreal.

Expo 67 Postcard
A postcard for Expo 67. Île Notre-Dame is a man made island that was created especially for the event with stone excavated during the building of the Montreal Metro. Some of the pavilions were removed to construct the Olympic Basin for rowing and canoeing events for the 1976 Olympics. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was then built on the island and has held the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix since 1978.

Construction began in 1970, just as Montreal was awarded the right to host the Olympic Games. No expense was spared to have the airport ready and operational in time for the Olympics. The city was keen to show this impressive structure to the world.

The original plan for Mirabel envisaged six runways and six terminal buildings, built over a number of phases. Only the first phase was completed. This included an underground station for the TRRAMM rail line that was never built.

The architects who designed the airport were Papineau Gérin-Lajoie Le Blanc who had impressed with their Ottawa pavilion during Expo 67. Their only other major work would be Radisson metro station as the firm was dissolved before the airport opened.
There was an emphasis on convenience with much emphasis placed on fact that some passengers could walk as little as 100 m (328 ft) from the curb to the gate. Instead of utilising jet bridges, passengers would be taken to their planes in specially designed mobile lounges called Passenger Transfer Vehicles (PTVs) capable of carrying 100 passengers.

Passenger Transport Vehicle Mirabel Airport
The Passenger Transport Vehicle or PTV was a mobile lounge which would take passengers from the gate to the plane. The concept was pioneered at Washington Dulles Airport.

The airport was designed as a minimalist dark glass box sitting on top of a concrete bunker housing maintenance services. A spine road ran through the centre of the airport with three terminals to be located on either side of this. Four runways would be located to the south and two to the north. Only one terminal and two runways were built as part of phase 1.

The grand opening for Montréal Mirabel International Airport took place on 4 October 1975. In the scramble to have the airport ready in time for the Olympics, it was decided that only international flights would move to the new airport with domestic and US flights to follow in 1982.

Almost immediately, problems began to the arise. The first issue was that anyone arriving into Mirabel from Europe would have to travel to Dorval to connect to other cities in Canada and the USA, and vice versa. The bus transfer between airports was slow, almost always in heavy traffic. It made international airlines reluctant to serve the new airport.

Secondly, Mirabel was quite a distance from downtown Montreal with the road and rail connections envisaged for the airport failing to progress. The high speed rail line to be called the to be called TRRAMM, or Transport Rapide Régional Aéroportuaire Montréal–Mirabel, failed to find funding. It was initially suggested to open in time for the Olympics but the idea never got beyond the drawing board. Instead, the airport was served by express buses on inadequate roads, often in heavy traffic.

Mirabel Airport Map
A map of Montreal Mirabel International Airport showing the parts that were built in blue and the unbuilt parts in grey. Note the TRRAMM station which was the only part of the network ever built.

The issues the airport experienced were compound during the Olympic Games in 1976. Visitors from around the world landed at Mirabel Airport but were then met with delays and poor infrastructure. It took over an hour to get to downtown Montreal and even longer to get the Olympic Stadium and Village. Buses shuttled people between venues but the traffic was often congested. Alongside the unfinished Metro lines, the infrastructure problems caused Montreal, Quebec and Canada some embarrassment.

When Montréal–Mirabel International Airport was originally planned, it was projected that traffic through both of the city’s airports would reach 20 million passengers by 1985 and 60 million by 2000. This estimated traffic never materialised. The outlook was bleak even before the airport opened mainly due to the 1973 oil crisis which dramatically increased the cost of flying. Airlines began to look for more economical, longer range jets. When Montreal declared that all international flights must land at Mirabel instead of Dorval from 1975 onwards, many airlines simply decided to stop flying to the city in favour of Toronto, Ottawa and cities in the USA.

Air Canada Boeing 747 in Montreal Mirabel International Airport
An Air Canada Boeing 747 in Montreal Mirabel International Airport. You can see the PTV in action here. The scissor legs could left it to the door of the waiting aircraft.

The issues that Montreal faced during the 1976 Olympics meant there was a lot of public pressure to keep Dorval open and it was decided not to move domestic and US flights to Mirabel in 1982. The decision to operate two airports simultaneously proved disastrous. Many airlines instead began opting for Toronto which had none of the issues facing Montreal such as the distance to downtown, rail connections and flight transfers.

By 1991, only 8 million people were using the airports in Montreal, far below the 20 million passenger estimate. In contrast, over 18 million people were using Toronto. In 1997, Dorval was reopened to international flights but by this time, Vancouver and Calgary had overtaken Montreal in terms of passenger numbers.

In 1999, Montréal–Mirabel International Airport lost it’s position as the largest airport property in the world, overtaken by King Fahd International Airport near Damman in Saudi Arabia. By this stage, most airlines had moved operations to Dorval which undergone a massive expansion project and was renamed Montréal–Trudeau International Airport in January 2004. The last passenger flight from Mirabel was an Air Transat flight to Paris on 31 October 2004.

The Departure Lounge at Mirabel Airport

The terminal building was abandoned following the airport’s closure. One of the runways was closed in 2005 with the other continuing to operate for business purposes, mainly for cargo and serving Bombardier’s aircraft plant. This has since been taken over by Airbus who make the A220 on the site.

In its final few months of operation, the terminal building was used to film movies, TV series and adverts. Perhaps the most notable of these was the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal. The building was completely abandoned soon after and would remain derelict for 10 years.

The Terminal Filmed at Mirabel Airport
The Tom Hanks film, The Terminal was filmed in Mirabel Airport. The image of New York was superimposed on the reflection of the glass.

An initial agreement was signed with a French company to build a theme park on the site, utilising the abandoned terminal building and parking facilities but the 2007-2008 global financial crisis let to the plans being cancelled.

Mirabel Airport Abandoned

With no other plans for the development of the terminal building forthcoming, it was decided demolition would be the best course of action. Aéroports de Montréal had spent $30 million in maintenance since the facility closed a decade earlier. Demolition began in November 2014 and lasted until August 2016.

Mirabel Airport Demolition

Despite the terminal building being removed, the airport began to see a marked increase in business traffic. Manufacturing plants, cargo operations and aerospace companies were attracted to Mirabel. The runway that had closed in 2005 was reopened along with the air traffic control tower.

Mirabel Aiport ATC Tower Abandoned

In 2019, Aéroports de Montréal renamed the airport to YMX International Aerocity of Mirabel. It would serve as the city’s main business airport while Montréal–Trudeau would continue to operate as its passenger airport.

Montréal–Mirabel International Airport never reached its full potential although it didn’t place the same economic burden on the city that the 1976 Olympic Games did. It would be 30 years before the debt resulting from the massive overspend would be paid back.

Montreal continues to attract international attention as the home of the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, one of the most watched annual sporting events globally. The cargo flown in for the race, including the cars, come through Mirabel.


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