Toronto Airport History

The History of Toronto Pearson International Airport

Built in 1937, Toronto Pearson Airport was, in its early years, known as Malton Airport. Its original design was developed by the Toronto Harbour Commission and it was created to be an alternate to the downtown Toronto Island Airport, which was known as the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport at the time.

Over time Pearson grew to become the main airport for the Greater Toronto Area and the Golden Horseshoe region, surpassing the more established Toronto Island Airport in the process.

Fast forward to today and Pearson is now not only one of the largest and busiest airports in Canada but also among the busiest airports in the world.
It is located 22.5 kilometres northwest of Downtown Toronto, with the airport spreading over parts of the city of Mississauga and a small portion of Etobicoke. It currently has five runways and two passenger terminals alongside a number of cargo and maintenance facilities.

Air Canada and Sunwing Airlines use the airport as their main hub, and it also serves WestJet, cargo airline and FedEx Express as well as a number of international airlines.

Flights from the airport travel to all major and most secondary cities across Canada. On top of this, over 1,250 flights go to and from over 180 destinations across the world on airplanes run by 75 different companies.

How did Toronto Pearson International Airport come about?

In 1936 the Government of Canada wanted to build an airport for the soon to be formed Trans-Canada Air Lines to begin operations out of in the greater Toronto area. In November 1936, an Advisory Airport Committee to the Toronto City Council began to look at a variety of locations where the airport could be built. Several were put forward with two being approved by the Government of Canada. The two sites were Malton in north-west Toronto and the Toronto Islands. The main land airport as well as a port to land seaplanes would be built on the islands, and Malton was planned to be used as an auxiliary airfield

Agreements were drawn up to purchase over 1,400 acres of farmland in the Malton area and construction began in earnest in mid 1937.

Developments at the Toronto Pearson International Airport over the years

Initially the airport had just the one terminal. It was never expected to have more due to its secondary role to the Island Airport. However, interest in flights soared before it even opened and soon outstripped those of the neighbouring Island Airport. So in 1938 a second terminal was built followed by an administration building in 1943 to accommodate more flights and better administration.

The airport at the time was one of the most advanced in the world with full lighting on the runways, weather reporting equipment, radio services, a pair of hard-surface runways, and a grass landing strip.

The first flight landed at Pearson on August 29th, 1938. It was an American Airlines DC-3 but contained no passengers. One year later to the day the first scheduled passenger flight, a Trans-Canada Airlines DC-3, landed to kick start the airport into full operation.

As with most airports the Second World War interrupted it’s running, and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan took over its running to use it as a flying school from 1940 to 1945. During this period six hangars, a drill hall and several h-huts and administrative buildings were constructed to support pilot training.

By 1946 the war had ended and the RCAF left Pearson. The buildings they’d erected were demolished as the airport expanded in subsequent years.
It was in this period between the end of the war and the late 50s that the airport saw its popularity soar. Passenger numbers soared to over 400,000 a year and a third terminal was built to accommodate. Further expansion saw an observation deck built on the roof of the 3rd terminal building and the number of runways increased.

A policy of preclearance for passengers in 1952 saw the number of passengers soar further as Pearson was able to connect to smaller airports in the US that at that time lacked customs and immigration facilities.

In November 1958, the airport was renamed to the Toronto International Airport by the Department of Transport who purchased it from the City of Toronto. At this time facilities in the two main terminals were improved and both Terminal 1 and 2 were running as passenger terminals, with Terminal 2 becoming the hub for Air Canada in 1973.

By the mid-eighties the airport was handling millions of passengers a year and had become the largest and most used airport in Canada. In an effort to honour former Nobel Peace Prize winner and fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada, it was re-christened in 1984 to the Lester B. Pearson International Airport.

Present Day Toronto Pearson International Airport

In 1996, the new Greater Toronto Airports Authority was formed to oversee Toronto Pearson. Its first task was to refresh and rebuild the terminals, so they were both modern and capable of handling the number of passengers passing through the airport every day.

Terminal 1 was rebuilt at a cost of $4.4 billion in 1999, with the first passengers going through it in 2002. A first-class lounge was added in 2005 and a variety of shops, restaurants and other amenities were created to make travelling at the airport a comfortable experience.

Terminal 3 was expanded in 2004 adding 40 check-in counters, a new retail space, and additional secure ‘hold-screening’ for luggage. This was followed by the closing of the out-dated Terminal 2 on January 29, 2007, bringing the number of terminals at the airport back to 2.

All these developments have led to Toronto Pearson being the airport it is today and serving over 40 million passengers each and every year.

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