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Canada airport grounded after never really taking off

MONTREAL — Parking is never a problem at Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, where entire days go by without a single passenger passing through the terminal. The granite floors are squeaky clean, the carpets look brand new, the aluminum trimmings are polished.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau labeled the airport "a project for the 21st century" when his government promoted it in the late 1960s, viewing it as a tool to help Montreal develop into a global cultural and financial magnet and as glue to keep Quebec in Canada. The $1 billion airport was revolutionary in its design, with a railroad station in its basement and a road tunnel under the runways to take drivers right to its international terminal.

But on Oct. 31 the final passenger flight — an Air Transit charter flight to Paris — will take off from its tarmac, and its once-supermodern terminal will be converted into a training center, or a casino, or a shopping center depending on the bids Aeroports de Montreal receives.

When Mirabel opened its gates in 1975, its managers predicted it would someday handle as many as 50 million passengers annually. But it never handled more than 2.8 million passengers in a year, and its operations have been winding down for years.

Mirabel's sad story is a tale of planning mistakes and political paralysis. Bitter disputes between the federal government in Ottawa and a series of separatist provincial governments in Quebec City stymied the building of a high-speed rail link or even a superhighway to connect the airport to downtown Montreal, about 40 miles away.

Canadian air transport specialists had expected airlines to move to Mirabel because of its updated facilities and in response to complaints from residents on the west side of Montreal island that the noisy Boeing 707s landing in the Montreal-Dorval International Airport were making their lives unbearable.

Canadian planners foresaw the day when the supersonic Concorde would ferry Europeans across the Atlantic to Mirabel in a flash. But soon after Mirabel opened, the much quieter Boeing 747 came to dominate international travel and the Concorde never took off commercially here.

Residents around Dorvallobbied politicians to keep the smaller airport open. International commercial flights coming into Mirabel were transferred back to Dorval in 1997, leaving Mirabel to handle only charter and cargo traffic.