A last-minute reprieve with a favourable rent deal will keep the air ambulance service Ornge flying out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport during the pandemic, officials say.
Ornge’s annual rent at the downtown airport has been reset by landlord Ports Toronto to roughly $ 200,000 a year. It was a whopping $ 5 million for the three-month period of March, April and May because Ornge had to cover all airport costs after Porter Airlines and Air Canada ceased flying from the island.
The provincial health ministry, which funds Ornge ($ 204 million annually), paid that bill to keep the airport open. Now, at least for the time being, the annual rent is back to normal.
“It is vital that Ornge maintains operations (at Billy Bishop) as it is a key patient transport hub providing quick access to trauma hospitals,” said Hayley Chazan, a spokesperson for provincial health minister Christine Elliott.
Ports Toronto and the ministry are still discussing terms going forward. Both parties are hoping normal airport operations will resume later this summer.
“We are exceedingly proud to have Ornge based at Billy Bishop Airport and are committed to do whatever we can, within our power, to keep Ornge at Billy Bishop Airport and return the airport itself to strength as soon as is possible and appropriate,” said Deborah Wilson, a Ports Toronto spokesperson.
Ornge operates two full-time helicopter crews out of Billy Bishop, and also flies fixed-wing aircraft from the island airport.
Several weeks ago, the Star revealed an unusual financial arrangement had arisen when Porter and Air Canada pulled out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in March due to the global pandemic. Only one tenant — the provincially funded Ornge — was left to keep the lights on. For three months, that amounted to close to $ 5 million.
That was because Ports Toronto lost almost all of its revenue overnight and there were still bills to be paid to keep the airport open , including airport security and ferry and tunnel services. Ports Toronto, a federal business enterprise that receives no public funding and must break even each year to survive, told the Star it was in a quandary.
Critics of Ports Toronto policy have told the Star it was unusual that the two large airlines were allowed to walk away from contractual rent payments. However, a Ports Toronto executive told the Star that, as his team watched airlines laying off employees due to the shutdown, it was decided it would be unfair to force the airlines to continue paying for a service they were not using.
There were some tense moments as the pandemic spread, with great uncertainty as to when airlines would fly again out of the island. Eventually, the provincial health ministry stepped up to pay $ 5 million in emergency funding for the March, April and May expenses at Billy Bishop. That deal expires Sunday.
The Star learned this week that Ports Toronto and the provincial health ministry had arrived at a deal. Ornge can continue business as usual flying out of Billy Bishop. It will not be charged any additional amounts other than its regular contractual rent. If regular commercial flights do not resume by the end of July, Ports Toronto will give Ornge 120 days to find a new base. Ornge had been scouting out Buttonville Airport, which many believe would be a better spot geographically to fly from.
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“(Ports Toronto is) currently facing challenging times with virtually no revenue coming in at present, and fixed costs that still have to be paid,” Wilson said. “However, it is our intention to do whatever possible to weather this storm and bring this airport back to its former position of strength, given its importance to Toronto.”
Ornge spokesman James MacDonald told the Star the company is “not currently proceeding on any plans for relocation and look(s) forward to remaining at the island for the foreseeable future.”