A secretive project to generate billions of dollars from the sale of major Canadian airports is pushing ahead with the hiring of consultant firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The firm is to "act as a commercial adviser assisting with additional analytical work with respect to advancing a new governance framework for one or more Canadian airports."

A Crown corporation acting for the federal Finance Department, the Canada Development Investment Corp. or CDEV, signed the open-ended, per-diem deal with PwC and has retained outside legal advisers to help with any sales.

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Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been considering airport sales and using the proceeds to build new infrastructure, a process called asset recycling. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The PwC contract, never announced, is referred to in a Finance Canada briefing note from February that was obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act. A spokesman for CDEV, Zoltan Ambrus, confirmed that the consultants remain under contract to advise on any airport deals.

"CDEV did engage PwC earlier this year to provide supplemental advice on airports, yes," he said in an email. "Yes, PwC is still providing advice."

The four-person PwC team includes Michael Burns, an international aviation specialist based in London, and Sandra Pupatello, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister and now a Toronto-based strategic adviser with the firm.

The new contract follows a report delivered last fall by Credit Suisse Canada on how Ottawa might gain billion-dollar windfalls through the sale of its interests in Canada's Big Eight airports and 18 smaller airports. The eight are in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Halifax.

Since 1994, Canadian airports have been run by non-profit, non-share private corporations, which lease the land from Ottawa. The federal government could reap between $7.2 billion and $16.6 billion from selling its interests in the Big Eight, a report from the C.D. Howe Institute estimated in February.

Government refuses to release details

Credit Suisse was hired by CDEV, acting on behalf of Finance Canada, in a contract announced in a terse two-sentence release on Sept. 12.

The Crown corporation and Finance have since refused to release the Credit Suisse report, the contract terms or even the cost to taxpayers, despite requests by an opposition MP and by journalists.

CBC News, however, has obtained the outlines of Project Eagle — the name given to the airport sale project — in a July 29, 2016, tender document used for the competitive bidding that was won by Credit Suisse.

The document, known as a request for proposals, was meant to be kept secret. A confidentiality clause warns that "knowledge of it will be limited to key personnel at CDEV and the government of Canada." Bidders were required to sign a confidentiality agreement before even seeing the document.

But a copy obtained under access to information shows Credit Suisse was required to review the Big Eight individually and to visit at least three for on-site interviews. The 18 smaller airports were to be treated in aggregate, without visits.

'This is still very early days.' — Senior federal official

Credit Suisse was also to look at five options, from the status quo — in which the non-profit airport authorities continue to pay rent to Ottawa — to creation of for-profit corporations that buy the land outright. The report was also to examine whether to change the current land-lease arrangements into upfront cash payment, likely at a discount.

And Credit Suisse was to review the regulatory frameworks used in the United States, Britain and Australia and in other sectors of Canadian aviation to help control costs for airlines and passengers, and to consider whether Ottawa should consider only partial divestiture.

Ambrus confirmed that the contracts with Credit Suisse and PwC contain clauses that give the firms vetoes over the public release of any information, including the cost of the work.

In addition, as a Crown corporation, CDEV is not bound by federal rules requiring the routine, proactive release of the dollar value of its contracts. However, the corporation does require all contracts valued over $100,000 to be competitive, giving at least a minimum value to the Credit Suisse and PwC deals since both were competitively tendered.

Craig Richmond

Craig Richmond, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, is opposed to airport sales, saying they will raise prices for travellers. (Tristan Rudelier/CBC)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau did not include the sale of airport equity in his March 22 budget, as some expected, but has never publicly dismissed the idea outright.

A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, played down the continued consultations with PwC.

"All that is happening here is more due diligence," he said. "There's enough interest in the concept to look at it, but not enough to make a decision on it. This is still very early days."

'Like selling the furniture'

This week, the president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority spoke out against any sale of federal airport assets, saying prices for airlines and passengers would only increase as for-profit entities seek to make back their investments.

Craig Richmond told an aviation industry publication that he understood the attraction of a one-time big profit for Ottawa, but "that's like selling the furniture in your house to cover your credit card debts."

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Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu has also warned about the price impact on passengers and airlines if Ottawa sold its big airports. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Richmond estimates the Vancouver airport alone could fetch between $4 billion and $5 billion in an auction.

Airport authorities in Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa have joined forces to oppose any sale and are trying to stir public opinion. Calin Rovinescu, president and CEO of Air Canada, has also spoken against the measure, warning of inevitable price increases.

But the Liberal government has said money from any airport sell-off could be used to fund badly needed new infrastructure projects, a process it calls "asset recycling."

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With files from David Cochrane