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"Mirabel International Airport ... will turn out to be one of Canada's greatest investments." -- Otto Lang, Transport Minister, 28 Feb 78
November 27, 2009 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Montréal Mirabel Airport was opened in 1975 at the cost of $2 billion adjusted. Ultimately its tarmac and runway areas alone were to take up 70 km2 (27 mi2) of space and would have made it the world's largest airport. The airport never got any busier than Boise Airport is today, and the passenger terminals are now abandoned shells (slideshow). A key factor in the failure was that for 22 years authorities banned all international flights from the much-closer, thriving Dorval Airport, heavily used by locals and business travellers. It didn't help that Montreal was already sliding into decline in the 1970s due to the growth of the Great Lakes and Toronto-based economies and uncertainties about Quebec's political climate. Montreal is no stranger to alleged boondoggles: Olympic Stadium, half-finished during the 1976 Summer Games, spiralled $1 billion over budget.
posted by crapmatic (46 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Big old chunks of the '70s, all corroded and sloughing off and injuring people.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:56 PM on November 27, 2009


Abandoned Airport Terminals = Best of the web, bar none.
posted by setanor at 12:56 PM on November 27, 2009


I know nothing about graphic design, but the cover page in the first link is genius. The Canada of my childhood in the seventies is typified by the future cool sophistication of all government publications, or at least that's how I remember it.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:58 PM on November 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


In my mind, Montreal can continue to throw billions at whatever stupid ideas it likes so long as it continues to be the most funnest place in Canada evar.
posted by Hoopo at 12:59 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


As I understand it, a big part of Mirabel's failure was that the provincial government never built the public transit and major highway to make Mirabel conveniently accessible. When I lived their in the 90s in downtown Montreal, Mirable was considered a 90 minute drive away, at least, through dense city streets to get out of Montreal and through Laval.
posted by fatbird at 1:06 PM on November 27, 2009


Montréal is falling down, falling down, falling down...
posted by Sys Rq at 1:10 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not completely sure what the thought process was behind those mobile lounges. I recall Washington DC having a similar setup.

They seem like a complete logistical pain in the ass and passenger annoyance with no benefit that I can think of.

But on the plus side, they look like something out of Space: 1999, so it probably evens out.
posted by generichuman at 1:11 PM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


How far away is Mirabel? To pick an arbitrary starting point, Mirabel is as far away from Montreal's Central Station as Westchester County Airport is from NYC's Grand Central Terminal.
posted by mhum at 1:15 PM on November 27, 2009


When I look at all this airport and this stadium, I see the same thing I see in every municipal boondoggle and instant ghost town: concrete; acres and acres of concrete. Somehow, the concrete always gets poured. Somehow, too late, it is discovered that there was a flaw in the governmental forecast, the business isn't happening like it was supposed to, the people aren't coming, the vast spaces built to accommodate the huge crowds that populate the planners' enthusiastic pitches never materialize; but for some reason, all the poor planning, all the incompetence, all these obvious signs of failure that should have been seen coming a mile away, none of this comes to light until after the concrete is poured. My advice to anyone who is tracking corruption in city government: cherchez le concrete.
posted by Faze at 1:17 PM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


The 70s was the decade when the future stopped being the future.
posted by Slothrup at 1:20 PM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


No worries...the proper organized crime entities were all paid in full. The actual building and operation of the projects is secondary.
posted by rocket88 at 1:24 PM on November 27, 2009


generichuman: I'm not completely sure what the thought process was behind those mobile lounges. I recall Washington DC having a similar setup.

Here's Mirabel in Google Maps. By the looks of it the terminal building had no jetways(!), so when you landed you waited for the mobile lounge to take you to the terminal. At least that's what I remember from the feature-length CBC news report when they opened the place. I recall this being hailed as one of the nifty new futuristic features (you wouldn't have to get cold or wet walking across the tarmac onto your jumbo jet!).
posted by hangashore at 1:26 PM on November 27, 2009


thanks for posting this, i love urbex sites.
posted by 3mendo at 1:34 PM on November 27, 2009


Thanks for posting this.

Mirabel still handles freight and some private aircraft (1, 2) but nowhere near to capacity and the cargo is small in comparison to Frankfurt (see third-from-last paragraph). It looks like some research and development firms take advantage of the runways (3, 4).

The Mirabel airport hotel was where Brian Mulroney met Karlheinz Schreiber.
posted by philfromhavelock at 1:56 PM on November 27, 2009


The 70s was the decade when the future stopped being the future.

I prefer to think of the 70s as the decade when the future started to suck.
posted by tommasz at 2:00 PM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is very old news. What's the point of resurrecting this now? Even the links are several years old.
posted by birdwatcher at 2:09 PM on November 27, 2009


Incidentally, Mirabel now has a race track on the old pan.

This is very old news. What's the point of resurrecting this now?

Yeah. How annoying. I mean, it was only the other day some guy was bothering me about how cool these Roman things were and those are REALLY old. Pffft.
posted by Brockles at 2:16 PM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


My advice to anyone who is tracking corruption in city government: cherchez le concrete.

It's a nice idea, but plenty of inhabited concrete out there, too. It's more the style of the times than a sign of doom (despite all aesthetic arrows pointed in that direction). In the west, Simon Fraser University is an award-winning campus built by a prison architect and, to me, looks like concrete hell. Out here in Ottawa, Tunney's Pasture is a concrete warren chock full of civil servants (as are many other fed gov enclaves). Hell, even my old law school is one hunkering concrete bunker. Which, admittedly, is not a defence of it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:34 PM on November 27, 2009


This is a fantastic post. I was unaware of this place. Thank you.
posted by WPW at 2:35 PM on November 27, 2009


A fundamental rule: You cannot replace a close-in airport with a distant airport unless you seriously constrain the old airport (see "Wright Amendment @ DAL") or close it (see "Stapelton Airport, Denver").

Mirable isn't the only one to miss this. See KBLV, Midamerica Airport, which was supposed to offer competition to St. Louis Lambert International. Not *one* airline was willing to move out there, thus, nobody else went there either.

"If you build it, they will come" is one of the great lies. In fact, if it's a bigger pain in the ass, they'll stay away in droves. Related: Don't think that a mall in downtown will bring in anybody who isn't already downtown (St. Louis Center) and don't think that dollar coins will magically replace bills (See the various and sundry US dollar coins.)
posted by eriko at 2:48 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wish the pics were uploaded with larger scans so they were more detailed, but awesome stuff nonetheless.
posted by barnacles at 2:53 PM on November 27, 2009


Experience at Dulles has led me to pronounce the phrase "mobile lounge" just like the phrase "crappy bus on stilts with no seats."
posted by rusty at 2:54 PM on November 27, 2009


A fundamental rule: You cannot replace a close-in airport with a distant airport unless you seriously constrain the old airport (see "Wright Amendment @ DAL") or close it (see "Stapelton Airport, Denver").

Corollary: Sometimes, even when you do constrain the old airport, the distant airport still fails. From 1975 to 1997, Dorval (the close airport) could not serve overseas flights. Maybe they should have also moved US flights from Dorval to Mirabel.
posted by mhum at 3:08 PM on November 27, 2009


Ryanair revitalizes all manor of far away airports! Oh, but they also charge $20 per ticket (if your crazy lucky).

I'd imagine a big airport like Mirabel just needs a 350kph underground maglev train linking it with the city center. Oh, you say that'll cost more than the airport? And the Mafia isn't getting their cut? Oh well..

It'd be interesting if anybody could put check in and security on direct trains from the city center, shaves 1-2 hours off total flight time.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:14 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe they should have also moved US flights from Dorval to Mirabel.

Maybe they should have built a convenient way to get to Mirabel. For most people who might have used it, that was the big drawback in comparison to Dorval.

Still, it's doubtful that Mirabel could have succeeded at all. It was a project born of an economic boom that ended, and led to a period of collapse for Montreal as the rise of separatism drove businesses to Toronto.
posted by fatbird at 3:17 PM on November 27, 2009


Thanks for that post. Our Canadian boondoggles are , ummm, unique. Mirabel, Montreal Olympics...

Here in Toronto, our special snowflake is the SkyDome, now known as Rogers Centre This sucker cost $600 million to build in the 1980s, it subsequently bounced between bankruptcy court and a few different owners til it was most recently purchased by Rogers (cable & broadcasting) for $25 Million. Unlike Mirabel, at least the Rogers Centre gets used.

In Canada, whenever there's a press conference announcing the construction of some great ediface or infrastructure as a "public/private partnership"... be afraid.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:36 PM on November 27, 2009


And Montreal is awesome, btw.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:36 PM on November 27, 2009


I'm not completely sure what the thought process was behind those mobile lounges. I recall Washington DC having a similar setup.

As others have pointed out, Dulles has the awful "mobile lounges" / "torture chambers". There is nothing worse than landing at IAD after a fifteen hour flight with broken lavs and then spending another hour crammed onto one of those horrible things, all the while being told that mobile phone use was not permitted since it was considered an extension of the customs hall.

What was the purpose of the fins on the top of the lounges? Did they serve some aerodynamic role in high-speed handling?
posted by autopilot at 3:37 PM on November 27, 2009


...don't think that dollar coins will magically replace bills (See the various and sundry US dollar coins.)
posted by eriko


One dollar coin in wide use/acceptance in Canada! We call it the loonie.
We even have a two dollar coin, the twoonie!
posted by typewriter at 3:56 PM on November 27, 2009


My impression is that present day Montreal is very slightly under capacity. That the people to buildings ratio is nicely stable (compared to that article from 1996). Because of this, moving from Vancouver to Montreal has made me feel incredibly rich. It's a very affordable and livable city (although the taxes are higher).
I would hate to have to go to Mirabel. PET (Dorval) is hard enough to get to.
posted by niccolo at 4:01 PM on November 27, 2009


This sucker cost $600 million to build in the 1980s, it subsequently bounced between bankruptcy court and a few different owners til it was most recently purchased by Rogers (cable & broadcasting) for $25 Million.

It was opened in 1989 after costing $600m to build. It was sold in 1994 for $151 m. It was sold again in 1999 for $80m and again (to Rogers) for $25m in 2004. I suppose it is good that they have broken the cycle, because the patterns seems to be that it should have changed hands again this year for about $6m (or as I used to say to tour groups in Toronto, "If you play your cards right, it could be yours next.")
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:09 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Okay, I think we know where to set the next nuclear winter zombie movie.

An airport is the ideal place for survivors to set up shop, too, in terms of cinematography. A lot of modern and retro design for the director of photography to show off, tons of weird little rooms to sneak into, the place is designed for security and corralling people, and people already feel quite crowded and sometimes claustrophobic in airports.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:57 PM on November 27, 2009


What was the purpose of the fins on the top of the lounges? Did they serve some aerodynamic role in high-speed handling?

I think the people mover can sink down ten feet, and the shafts slide up into the fins.

Still a silly idea, though.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:02 PM on November 27, 2009


I flew into Mirabel years ago. It was a supercheap flight and so we decided to risk it. This was in 1990 and even then the place was dead.

The mobile lounges were ridiculous, even though we were the only plane there, once we landed we had to sit and wait for it to come out, then all get crammed into it and slowly make our way to the gate.

Once inside you basically sat in a large holding pen waiting for your baggage. You couldn't leave the room. Once all baggage was in then we were let out. And this was a domestic flight from Vancouver! It would have been hell to deal with customs as well.

Worst airport design ever.
posted by Salmonberry at 5:24 PM on November 27, 2009


I think the people mover can sink down ten feet, and the shafts slide up into the fins.

Flyertalk confirms this answer. The finned people movers do have about 2-3 m of vertical travel and there are also some that lack the fins (and the ability to change height). These have been described as "the ugliest people mover[s] ever".
posted by autopilot at 5:52 PM on November 27, 2009


The mobile lounges are great for zombie defense when the zombies reach the stage where they've figured out how to break windows but not how to climb. Just lift it to jetliner height and station flamethrower guys at the ends.

concrete; acres and acres of concrete

The thing that drives me crazy about concrete is it danged permanence. At my last house, we moved the hot tub across the yard & it required jackhammering the old pad & pouring a new one. At least that was done professionally, but when I demolished the deck, I had to get rid of the footings myself. Each little foot-square block weighed over 50 lbs & there were a whole trunkfull & the concrete recycler was 30 miles away.
posted by morganw at 6:01 PM on November 27, 2009


The saddest thing about Mirabel is how the expropriated all the farmers in the region, farmers that were servicing the island of Montreal. My CSA is not far from Mirabel and it would be great if they returned the land to more productive use.
posted by furtive at 6:55 PM on November 27, 2009


I have flown in and out of Montreal through Mirabel for more than 20 years.

It was one of the most beautiful, efficient and easy to use airport I have ever seen.

The terminal is basically one big glass box, as described in the Wikipedia page:
Designed by architects Papineau-Gérin-Lajoie, Mirabel's terminal carried over their creator's award-winning Expo 67 Quebec pavilion design. A simple minimalist dark glass box sitting on top of a concrete bunker housing maintenance services, the terminal was hailed as an architectural triumph when it first opened. Passengers walked as little as 100 metres going from the curb to the gate.
Sure, waiting inside a Passenger Transfer Vehicle was not the best part but there was no long walks in endless corridors as in most other airports. The place is huge, airy, peaceful.

A part of Spielberg's The Terminal has been shot at Mirabel (although not the main scenes in the concourse shown on the imdb page).

I just uploaded on flickr a few photos I took the last time I was there in June 2004. I regret that I have not taken more. Everything was incredibly well designed, from the seats in the waiting areas to the big granit ashtrays to the yellow counters.

I don't know what happened to this classic furniture and I am afraid that the people in charge of the terminal today have no idea what an architectural gem this is. I have read somewhere that great architecture lifts your soul. Mirabel Airport is one of the rare buildings that did it for me. It should be a public place, it would be a wonderful museum.
posted by bru at 7:41 PM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great post.

The saddest thing about Mirabel is how the expropriated all the farmers in the region, farmers that were servicing the island of Montreal.

They also did this in Toronto, starting in the 1970's, for the proposed Pickering Airport.
We have friends that were forced off their property in Markham in the late '70's.
The airport still hasn't been built due to controversy, public outcry ("Not Another Mirabel!") and various shenanigans. Some homes were leased back to people but many are vacant.
It's like Area 51 or something now, apparently.
posted by chococat at 8:43 PM on November 27, 2009


I don't think distance was the main fault. Burlington's airport is very popular and heavily used by Quebec folks, and doesn't seem as easy to get to as Mirabel.
posted by paddbear at 6:14 AM on November 28, 2009


One dollar coin in wide use/acceptance in Canada! We call it the loonie.

They didn't magically supplant the $1CAD bill -- they stopped printing the $1CAD bill, and suddenly, the coin took over.

We even have a two dollar coin, the twoonie!

I thought it was called one US dollar.

(I keed, I keed)
posted by eriko at 10:04 AM on November 28, 2009


I don't think distance was the main fault. Burlington's airport is very popular and heavily used by Quebec folks, and doesn't seem as easy to get to as Mirabel.

It's not just the difficulty to get to Mirabel, it's the difficulty in contrast to the convenience of Dorval. You can't make people switch by offering a more irritating option, enforced by federal policy.

I thought it was called one US dollar.

Not these days.
posted by fatbird at 11:46 AM on November 28, 2009


I've flown in and out of Mirabel -- mostly as a kid. The last few times I saw it was driving by from my parents who live north of Ottawa to my friends' in the Laurentians. The bright lights and empty glass buildings give me a kind of chill. Still, the airport apparently does better business now dealing with mostly freight and the odd charter than it ever did.

Great pics, Bru and good post.
posted by bumpkin at 7:53 PM on November 28, 2009


...don't think that dollar coins will magically replace bills (See the various and sundry US dollar coins.)

Much of the rest of the world does; it's just, as with measurement systems and healthcare the denizens of the United States are just that little bit backward.
posted by rodgerd at 12:55 AM on November 29, 2009


I dream and hope for the day when a budget carrier (like RyanAir, Easyjet, or Toronto's Porter) begins using Mirabel for cheap cheap cheap flights.
posted by Marquis at 10:32 AM on November 29, 2009


I recall this being hailed as one of the nifty new futuristic features (you wouldn't have to get cold or wet walking across the tarmac onto your jumbo jet!).

Heh. Another solution is to just put roofs on the airstairs.
posted by smackfu at 6:20 AM on November 30, 2009


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