Montréal-Trudeau has grown from its modest beginnings as a military base during the Second World War into a world-class gateway for North America and Europe.
Seventy years ago, the Nazis were multiplying air strikes against Great Britain. The Royal Air Force was desperate for aircraft after losing hundreds of planes in air battles over Europe. Its essential supply of US aircraft, sent on ship convoys, was being sunk in the icy Atlantic by relentless German U-boat attacks. The only, and daunting, alternative was to fly the planes across the Atlantic, even though transatlantic flight was still in its infancy.
A proud heritage and a bright future
Enter the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, established to deliver US-made warplanes to Great Britain. Its main base of operations: a new airport built by the Canadian government on the site of the former Dorval Race Track on the outskirts of Montréal. Officially inaugurated on September 1, 1941, Montréal Airport (Dorval) would go on to help ferry 10,000 aircraft, playing an instrumental role in the Allied victory and paving the way for mass postwar transatlantic air travel.
Today, the airport, renamed Montréal-Trudeau, is Canada's third largest, welcoming about 13 million passengers this year and served by some 30 airlines offering nonstop service to more than 130 destinations in Canada, the US and internationally.
Montréal Airport grew rapidly when it switched to civil transportation after the end of the Second World War. In 1945, it was already served by four airlines offering 22 scheduled flights and handling 500 passengers a day. A year later, BOAC (now British Airways) established the first transatlantic passenger service between Montréal and the UK and passenger traffic jumped to 250,000 a year.
By 1952, Dorval was serving 590,000 passengers a year and many other airlines started using the airport, including KLM and Air France. Two of its three runways were lengthened to meet demand. In 1955, it became Canada's biggest airport, with 1 million passengers.
About Aéroports de Montréal
Two years later, construction began on Canada's first cargo terminal, at Dorval, allowing it to become the main Canadian entry point for cargo from Europe. In November 1960, the airport was renamed Aéroport international Dorval de Montréal/Montréal-Dorval International Airport and a month later Canada's Minister of Transport inaugurated a new $30 million terminal. It was the largest terminal in Canada and one of the biggest in the world. The original terminal was demolished.
The Dorval Race Track land was chosen as the site for construction of the new airport.
Airport site during the Royal Air Force Ferry Command. National Archives of Canada
The original terminal at Dorval during the 1950's. National Archives of Canada
A Transport Department weather officer gives a pre-flight briefing to two pilots.
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police dog master. Aircraft: Air Canada
In the 1960s, Montréal experienced a tremendous economic boom. Massive construction projects, such as the Montréal Metro, coupled with the hosting of Expo 67, brought the city international status. More and more visitors were arriving to the city, especially by air: the federal government required that European airlines make Montréal their port of entry into Canada. This resulted in annual growth of 15-20% in passenger traffic at Dorval. By 1968, the airport was handling 4.5 million passengers.
The Canadian government predicted that Dorval would be completely saturated in less than 20 years and decided to build a new airport that would be more than able to absorb increasing passenger traffic well into the 21st century. However, by the time Mirabel Airport opened in 1975, Toronto had become Canada's number one gateway and passenger volume fell well below forecasts. Mirabel's development was therefore halted and only the first phase of six projects was completed.
Scheduled international passenger flights, which had been transferred to Mirabel in 1975, were repatriated to Dorval in September 1997 and the last passenger charters followed in October 2004. Mirabel now specializes in cargo operations and is also an important industrial site for such aerospace companies as Bombardier Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney Canada, L3 MAS, Avianor Group and others.
In the meantime, responsibility for the operation and development of Montréal's airports had been passed, under the terms of a lease, from Transport Canada to a new local airport authority called Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), which started operations in 1992. The transfer was part of the Government of Canada's new national policy of divesting itself of the country's major airports.
A view of the terminal building interior, showing check-in counters in the U.S. departures area as it looked in the 1970's.
ADM faced many challenges when it was established. The sharing of Montréal's air traffic between two distant airports was adversely affecting the industry's development and complicating connections between the international sector and the domestic and transborder sectors. Moreover, Dorval's airport facilities were suffering from many years of under-investment.
A nighttime view of the terminal airside, with an Air Canada DC-8 in the foreground.
The façade of the terminal building during the 1980's.
The new transborder departures area and Marriott Hotel, both inaugurated in 2009.
With the consolidation of passenger traffic back at Dorval, ADM began planning a major redevelopment of the airport's aging terminal complex. Between 2000 and 2005, it built a new jetty for flights to the US, a new international jetty, an international arrivals complex featuring a new Canadian customs hall and baggage claim area, and expanded parking lots. Additionally, sections of the domestic area were renovated and expanded, with more space available for commercial services. In the midst of the expansion, on January 1, 2004, Dorval Airport was renamed in honour of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Between 2006 and 2009, Montréal-Trudeau saw the construction of a new four-star Marriott hotel and a modernized and user-friendly transborder departures sector. It includes a US pre-Customs clearance centre and one of the world's most advanced outbound baggage systems, which significantly increases handling capacity and speed.
The expansion and modernization program has also leveraged high-tech solutions to facilitate the processing of passengers and their luggage while meeting stringent safety requirements imposed since 9/11. Today, Montréal-Trudeau is a world leader in airport self-serve technologies, such as self-serve check-in. Moreover, in keeping with a firm commitment to sustainable development, ADM took advantage of the program to incorporate new technologies to boost energy efficiency and reduce the airport's environmental footprint.
By the end of 2010, more than $1.6 billion had been spent to upgrade Montréal-Trudeau—on time and on budget without any government grants—to the point where it can now serve more than 15 million passengers a year. Thanks to Montréal-Trudeau's major modernization and expansion program, the airport is well positioned for continued growth, to serve the community, and to write new chapters in aviation history.
Did you know?
Montréal's first airport opened in St. Hubert on the South Shore in 1927, just two years after Canada's first airport was established in Long Branch, Toronto. St. Hubert was used mainly for postal services and passenger flights operated by Canadian Colonial Airlines and Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), as well as to accommodate dirigibles (airships), a popular mode of transportation at the time.
When Montréal-Trudeau Airport's terminal opened at the end of 1941, the airport had more employees than Dorval had residents.
CN Rail's Tea Wing Restaurant at Dorval became Canada's first airport restaurant, in 1941.
Murray Hill began offering the first airport limo service in 1941.
Tilden Drive Yourself became the first airport car rental service in 1951.
In November 1960, the airport was renamed Aéroport international Dorval de Montréal/Montréal-Dorval International Airport and a month later Canada's Minister of Transport inaugurated a new $30 million terminal. It was the largest terminal in Canada and one of the biggest in the world. The original terminal was demolished.