Toronto Airport Guide

See our tips and recommendations for one of the major hubs for North America -- Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport.
By: Andrew Yang
Show: The Layover
Episode: Toronto

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Photo by: Ian Muttoo, flickr

Ian Muttoo, flickr

While Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport may serve the largest city in Canada, its influence as an aviation hub extends far beyond. The airport is one of the major hubs for North America and only one of 2 airports on the continent that serves 6 continents with direct flights. (The other is New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.)

Since Toronto is located within such close proximity to the East Coast of the United States, the airport has had US immigration preclearance capabilities since 1952, allowing international transfer passengers to pass through US immigration in Toronto, and proceeding to any number of destinations within the United States. This has allowed the airport to grow and essentially become a major East Coast airport hub not just for Canadian but American travelers as well.

Toronto Pearson is a wonderfully functional modern airport, but some of its main drawbacks are its space constraints due to channeling US preclearance passengers, who account for 25% of the airport’s traffic. As such, there are 3 zones in the airport -- domestic, US transborder and international. The necessary confined walkways and transfer areas required for these passengers have restricted communal amenity spaces within. Regardless, Toronto Pearson remains one of the major hubs of North America, and if you’ve got a few hours to spend, here’s what you need to know.

Major Airport Upgrades
Named after Canada’s 14th prime minister, who also happened to be a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Toronto Pearson, as the airport is known, has benefited from several major upgrades.

Terminal 1, which composes the airport’s main terminal, is a sleek, open, steel-and-glass enclosed structure that opened in 2004, and holds nearly 60 gates. It is the home of Air Canada, and all of the Star Alliance airlines operate out of here. (As Terminal 1 was planned, the older Terminal 2 was folded into the operations of the new building, and ceased to exist in 2007.) Currently, all flights in and out of the airport operate out of Terminals 1 and 3; the latter is home to all other airlines that are not part of the Star Alliance.

Coming and Going

Pearson is located anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes from downtown Toronto. Despite the modern upgrades, Toronto Pearson is not served by any rail links. However, in 2010, Toronto’s transit authority started construction on a direct rail link, connecting Union Station (Toronto) to the airport with an express train, with work to be completed by 2015.

Within Pearson Airport, the 2 terminals are served by the frequent and efficient LINK Train people mover; these 2 6-car trains also connect travelers to airport parking. Recently, Terminal 1 has been home to the first and only ThyssenKrupps Express Walkway, a high-speed moving platform that zips passengers through the terminal, deftly allowing them to board at a slower rate by accelerating them nearly 1,000 feet in a mere minute and a half.

Get Refreshed

The best bet for travelers needing more amenities at Toronto Pearson would be to access, or buy your way into one of the airport’s 10 airline lounges. The major airlines that serve the airport have their own facilities, including American Airlines, Air France-KLM and Air Canada, whose lounge facilities are the most extensive. However, travelers not associated with these airlines can buy their way into the Plaza Premium Lounge, which operates several lounges in both terminals; each lounge caters to a specific traveler; they are divided accordingly among domestic, US transborder and international travelers. For $35 Canadian dollars, travelers can access showers, Wi-Fi, food and drinks, all for 3 hours, making these lounge areas a good bargain for those in need of extra amenities.

Airport Amenities
One of the more remarkable features of Toronto Pearson is the space devoted to modern art and sculpture. Since 2006, visitors have passed through a massive steel sculpture by American minimalist artist Richard Serra in Terminal 1. Titled Tilted Spheres, the curved steel panels -- 39 feet long by 14 feet high -- appear to be precariously caving in on whomever passes between them. This is one of the major artworks to be found in the airport, alongside works by Catalan Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and German industrial designer Ingo Maurer.

The airport’s exhibits, past and present, have relied heavily on the city’s cultural institutions, ranging from the Royal Ontario Museum to the Toronto International Film Festival. These days, Terminals 1 and 3 feature changing exhibits that feature Canadian culture, ranging from rugby to local art and design.

Airport Dining Options
For dining, Pearson Airport has also been notoriously low on options. That started to change in 2012 with the opening of 13 new dining venues, each helmed by a well-known local chef. Dining options include Heirloom Bakery Café in both terminals, Nobel Burger Bar in Terminal 3 and Trillium, a tapas bar, also in Terminal 3. Additional venues started to open in late 2012, with the remainder to open in 2013.

One thing to note about the airport’s amenities is that most dining options happen to be located prior to security check-in, rather than after security clearance. So plan accordingly.

Going Wireless

Toronto is one of the few airports in the world that is entirely wired with free Wi-Fi for all of its travelers.

NYC-based writer Andrew Yang frequently used Toronto Pearson airport as an alternative to John F.Kennedy Airport for Asian and European flights.

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