If you’re looking for an entertaining airport fight, then you might want to look north toward Canada. Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport lies right near downtown on a small island in Lake Ontario. This airport has been a point of contention in Canada for years, but things are starting to get ugly again. The airport’s biggest tenant, Porter, wants a runway extension so it can fly jets. Air Canada, however, has come out firmly against such an idea.
Toronto’s main airport has long been Pearson, about 30 minutes to the west of downtown Toronto. This airport, a huge hub for Air Canada, is expensive for airlines to use but generally serves the city well. Its biggest downfall? Travelers from Toronto have to navigate through a horde of of rabid Leafs fans visiting the Molson brewery right outside the airport grounds before getting to the terminal. There is, however, another option. Toronto has a second airport in Billy Bishop, often referred to as City Centre Airport, and it’s extremely convenient for those downtown.
This airport has a tortured history, and its use is heavily restricted. There is a noise ordinance and airlines can’t fly jets at all from there. (Turboprops are ok though.) Back in 1990, a regional airline that would eventually be part of Air Canada Jazz began service at the airport to Montreal and Ottawa. That service lasted in one form or another until 2006 when all hell broke loose.
The owner of the small terminal building decided to get into the airline game. So, he sent Air Canada a notice that it was being evicted. Days later, the launch of Porter Airlines was announced. The airport is on a small island with a mere 4,000 foot runway, so space is at a premium. Though Air Canada wanted to continue service, it had no terminal. That meant the airline had to pull out, giving Porter a monopoly.
By Fall, Porter had launched using Q400 turboprop aircraft, and it had a huge advantage. The airport would literally be steps from the city’s business district if not for a football field-length stretch of water in between. Ferries leave every 15 minutes and cost pedestrians nothing. The long-proposed foot bridge will eventually be built, I’m sure, but even with the short ferry ride, the time savings were tremendous. And nobody but Porter could fly there for 5 years. Finally, in 2011, Air Canada was able to get back into the airport thanks to a requirement the the terminal be open for use by others (at a large cost, of course). Today Air Canada flies solely to Montreal via a regional partner. Porter, meanwhile, flies to a bunch of cities in both Canada and the US but it’s not content. It wants to make some big changes at the airport and the fight has begun to heat up.
A couple years ago, Porter went and entered into an agreement with Bombardier to buy up to 30 CS-100 jets. These don’t need a lot of runway, but they need more than the airport has today. And the airport doesn’t allow jets anyway. You can see where this is going.
Porter has been pushing hard for two things to happen. First, it wants the city to extend the runway by over 1,000 feet (half at each end). This would give enough runway for those CS-100s to not only get off the ground but fly as far as the west coast of the US. Second, it needs the airport’s “no jets” policy to be lifted. This would create a lot of opportunity for Porter since it holds the lion’s share of the slots. (Porter has 172 and Air Canada has the remaining 30.) So you wanna guess what Air Canada thinks about this?
Air Canada has come out actively opposing the allowance of jets at the airport. This, of course, makes sense. It has only a few slots at the airport, and it doesn’t have the aircraft to match the C-Series expected performance. That means that Porter would be able to fly to places like LA, Vancouver, and Florida while Air Canada couldn’t. Instead, Air Canada would be able to compete only from Toronto Pearson. Nobody thinks this will destroy Air Canada, but it would certainly put a dent in the airline’s position. Were I Air Canada, I’d oppose it to.
But at the same time, Air Canada says it wants a lot more slots at the airport so it can serve more cities. It’s not dumb. It’s the old time-honored tradition of saying you hate something but then if it happens anyway, you want a piece of the action.
This has created quite the odd couple with Air Canada and anti-airport people forming something of an alliance in trying to fight the expansion. Now, it sounds like it’s up to the city to determine what happens next. A ruling probably won’t come down for some time, but Porter has been pushing hard, saying it must make a non-refundable deposit to Bombardier this month.
This story gets even more interesting if the approval occurs. Then, will the aircraft actually meet performance guarantees and be able to operate a full load to the coasts from that still-short runway? There’s a lot of “what-ifs” going on in this story, and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.