Porter Airlines wants to expand service to cities like Vancouver, Los Angeles and Miami with new Bombardier CSeries 100 jets, but whether the plan can actually get off the ground will require significant political support.
That’s because the existing agreement that governs the Toronto island airport, where Porter’s operations are centred, would need to be amended to permit jets to land there. As well, the runway would need to be extended by 168 metres on either side into the lake, lengthening the runway to more than 5,000 feet.
Porter president and CEO Robert Deluce said no discussions have taken place yet with the three signatories — the federal government, the city of Toronto and the Toronto Port Authority, which operates the airport.
Nevertheless, Porter has gone ahead and signed a conditional order with Bombardier for 12 planes, with options for another 18, a deal valued at more than $2 billion (U.S.) using list prices, though it would likely receive a significant discount.
The CS100 plane, which would seat 107 passengers, in two classes including business, would give Porter the ability to fly anywhere in North America and into the Caribbean from Toronto, starting in 2016. Flight paths to and from the airport would not change.
Deluce expressed confidence that approval for Porter’s plan would come, given the economic benefits for the city including 1,000 jobs at Porter as well as the travelling public, who want more routes and competitive fares.
“We will go forward with a respectful conversation where we provide all available information,” Deluce said at a news conference Wednesday. “We would be hopeful that we would have some sort of approval from the three levels of government in six months, certainly before the end of the year.”
But any proposal to expand the island airport to permit jets is sure to generate opposition, especially among island residents as well as those who live in waterfront condos, who are concerned about traffic around the airport.
Community AIR spokesman Barry Lipton told reporters at City Hall that Porter will be in for a fight.
“It’s not just going to be Community AIR, or just the residents across the waterfront,” Lipton said, noting another grassroots group quickly formed to stop the Port Lands plan in 2011. “People are going to, I think, come together, very quickly, and there will be opposition to this very rapidly.”
Porter’s announcement sparked memories from a decade ago, when a proposal to build a bridge to the island airport became a central issue of the 2003 municipal election. It certainly helped propel David Miller, who campaigned on a theme of a clean, green waterfront, to the mayor’s office.
Deluce argued Bombardier’s all-new jet, which is scheduled to have its first test flight before the end of June, generates the same amount of noise as the Q400 turboprops that Porter currently flies. He said the agreement that bans jets was signed 30 years ago at a time when jets were noisy.
Councillor Adam Vaughan said he is concerned that introducing jets for Porter would open the door for all jets.
“The minute you open up to Bombardier jets, you open them up to every jet,” Vaughan said. “That means small corporate jets which are twice as loud and twice as dirty.
“U.S. air carriers that fly small jets have under the open skies policy exactly the same access. And that means it’s not just quiet jets coming, it’s every jet that’s coming, and that has a huge impact on anyone who lives anywhere near the water, from Scarborough to Etobicoke,” Vaughan said.
On Tuesday before the announcement, Mayor Rob Ford had expressed a willingness to hear Porter’s proposal about extending the runway, saying he supports both Deluce and the airline.
On Wednesday, his brother, Doug Ford, said the island airport would “still be a cornfield” if not for Porter’s Deluce, adding approval would create jobs both at Porter and Bombardier.
“We support jobs and this is going to create jobs, it’s going to create more tourists coming into the city,” he said. “We’re one of the only cities that I’m aware of in North America where you can live and you can walk to the airport.”
At Queen’s Park, Transportation Minister Glen Murray — who is also the MPP for the downtown riding of Toronto-Centre — appeared caught by surprise with the Porter announcement but expressed concern.
“We haven’t seen any details on it yet; this is the federal government’s area of regulation,” he told reporters.
A Transport Canada spokeswoman said the department has not been approached by either the city of Toronto or the port authority to amend the tripartite agreement yet. She added the agreement cannot be unilaterally amended.
In a statement, the port authority said it would not consider any changes to the airport “until a determination is first made by the elected representatives on Toronto city council,” regarding Porter’s proposed changes.
The airport has 202 daily slots controlling takeoffs and landings, of which Porter controls the vast majority. Air Canada holds only 30 that it uses on its Toronto-Montreal route.
With 12 additional CSeries planes, Porter would likely need an additional 50 slots.
Air Canada, which has been seeking additional slots at the island airport, said it wants “some assurance that this public asset will be opened up to greater competition, and that slots will become available for carriers such as Air Canada.”
Porter board chairman Don Carty expects a fulsome debate among city councillors, but believes they will be swayed by the arguments.
“As they think about what this does for the city in aggregate, not just economically, but in terms of the city’s accessibility from other parts of North America, they will see this as the right thing to do for the city,” Carty said.
Porter’s order is critical for Bombardier, which has invested billions to develop the new aircraft with a special engine. It powered on the plane for the first time last month, and is scheduled to hand the plane to the flight test centre next month.
Sales have been sluggish as airlines seem reluctant to place firm orders, given the experience they faced with both Boeing and Airbus, which had long delays to deliver their new aircraft to market.
To date, it has 148 firm orders out of 382 commitments. CSeries customers include Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines and U.S.-based Republic Airways.
With files from David Rider, Rob Ferguson and Bruce Campion-Smith