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2 cities, 3 airports, 1 Canadian solution

This is a tale of two cities and three airports. Montreal has two airports, both of which do less business combined than Toronto's one. This month the federal government found a solution to Montreal's problem with Mirabel Airport, an underused facility that many call a white elephant.

Montreal's first airport, Dorval, is a handy spot about 10 miles or a $17 taxi ride from downtown; the bus is $6. Like La Guardia in New York or Logan in Boston, it is a big-city airport near the center of the big city.

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In 1975 the federal government opened Mirabel, Montreal's second airport. It is 35 miles north of downtown, off the island, over two bridges. There is no direct road, and cab fare is a whopping $55. Even the bus is $9.

Eighty-eight thousand acres of farmland surround the matte black airport terminal of Mirabel. It is an airport built to deal with lots of little planes in the age of the jumbo. For instance, little buses go out and pick up passengers from planes. Instead of one bus going to meet a DC-8 or 707, four or five trundle out to a 747.

Airlines and passengers generally try to avoid the place. The new mayor of Montreal, Jean Dor'e, asked that it be shut down, saying Dorval should be for passengers, Mirable for cargo and maintenance.

But the mayor has not gotten his wish. Instead, the federal government worked out a compromise that has pleased no one. Ottawa now says there are no longer two airports but one. Dorval will be called the West Terminal and Mirabel will be the North Terminal.

The big winner is Toronto's Pearson International airport. It has long since eclipsed Montreal as the premier air gateway to Canada. It has the convenience of having two terminals in the same place, connected by an indoor escalator, not two highways.

Last year, Toronto's airport handled 16 million passengers, triple what the two Montreal airports did. Mirabel handled just 1.7 million; Dorval, 5.8 million. In 1974, two years before Mirabel opened, 7 million went through Dorval.

While the joining of the two airports in Montreal may not solve the problems of overseas passengers who have to trek to Mirabel to catch planes, it will make overall finances look better. Last year Mirabel lost money - as it has every year since it opened. Dorval made a profit. As one airport, ``Dorbel'' will be operating at a profit, and the planners in bureaucrats in Ottawa can sleep soundly.

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