Porter Version 2.0 Gets Ready to Join the Fray Across Canada

Porter

Porter is not a new airline, having flown the Canadian skies since 2006. Back then, it was the idea of launching a base at Toronto’s close-in City Airport (now named after Billy Bishop) that created a nice little niche for the company. But now, the airline is changing… rapidly.

After announcements made last week regarding Porter’s new product and routes, we can now get a sense of where the new Porter is going.

The old Porter was a short-haul, primarily business-focused airline. It deployed Q400s that now seat 78 passengers, because that’s really the best choice it had if it wanted to serve Toronto/City. That airport was barred from being served by jets, but it was and is remarkably convenient. More importantly, it allowed travelers to avoid some pretty frightening terrain between Toronto and the city’s primary Pearson airport.

With this, Porter succeeded, but it was very clearly a short-haul airline that was so dependent on business travel that it actually just shut down completely for a year and a half from the dawn of the pandemic until September 2021.

Over the years, Porter has expanded beyond its original sole focus on Toronto City. Here’s the January 2023 map:

Porter Airlines Network January 2023

Map via Cirium

Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax are now notable, if not enormous, focus cities for the airline. But with only 29 Q400s, there was only so far Porter could go. If it had more Q400s, it couldn’t do much more anyway thanks to range limitations. So it hatched a plan.

Porter decided to order 30 Embraer 195-E2s in 2021 and add purchase rights for 50 more. There had been talk of allowing these new, quiet jets to use Toronto City airport, but that was shot down. Instead of backing away, Porter went all-in. This year it added another 20 aircraft to the original order. I’m no mathemetician, but adding 50 jets on top of the 29 in the fleet already seems like a pretty big gamble of an expansion.

Unable to serve its home base and sole reason for existence with these airplanes, Porter backed itself into a sticky situation of its own making. It had no choice but to effectively create a new reason to live, a way to justify these airplanes joining the fleet. We just didn’t know what that would be until last week.

The first announcement was about changes to the airline’s onboard product. Porter has always been a coach-only airline, but it had different fare types ranging from a basic economy offering to an all-in flexible fare. Porter always tried to “fancy it up” a bit by having free beer and wine onboard the short flights to complement the ease of use of Toronto/City.

Those levels will all remain, but they will now be lumped under the PorterClassic brand. On the Q400s, 72 of the 78 seats will be sold under that brand along with 118 of the 132 seats on the E2s. The rest of the seats? Those will fall under a nearly-premium-economy offering called PorterReserve.

Porter very firmly calls this still an economy product. The seats, in fact, will be exactly the same whether in Classic or Reserve, a relatively easy decision since the airplanes are 2-2 across already. But other than that, it looks more like a premium economy or domestic business class-style offering.

  • Fresh meals included on the E2s with better snacks on the Q400s
  • Cocktails/spirits now included
  • Access to the dedicated check-in lanes currently used by elite frequent fliers
  • Early boarding
  • Extra legroom (36 inches of pitch on the E2 and 32 inches of pitch on the Q400)
  • Two checked bags included
  • No change fee

On the E2, this is being done because the airplane will be running longer distances than the Q400s. For that reason, Porter will also have free wifi that allows streaming on all of its E2s (from Viasat).

Porter didn’t want to go with a true premium economy product that would require going to 1-2 across instead of 2-2. The reality is that most people probably don’t care that much as long as there aren’t middle seats, and this will allow Porter to try to carve out a niche with lower premium fares than you’ll find on WestJet or Air Canada.

On the Q400, PorterReserve is being offered primarily so that Porter can have a connecting product that will allow people to go from the E2 to the Q400 and have a similar experience. If you’re curious, all Porter had to do was move row 1 up a little to make sure that the six seats in rows 1 and 2 all have 32 inches of pitch, 2 more than in the back.

All of this sounds interesting, but it means nothing until we know where the airplanes will fly. As I understand it, there will be many drips of new routes over the coming months, but we now know the first additions on the E2 and they all involve passengers traversing the dangerous home of the trash panda to get to Pearson.

  • Toronto/Pearson – Ottawa starts Feb 1, 4x daily
  • Toronto/Pearson – Montreal starts Feb 1, going to 4x daily by Feb 7
  • Toronto/Pearson – Vancouver starts Feb 7, going to 3x daily by Mar 21

This really doesn’t tell us much since it appears to be more about building blocks than anything else. Still, in a world where most growth comes from ULCCs, this does stand out for several reasons.

There is pretty hefty frequency to start off. Vancouver is a brand new route, so that may make more sense. But the other routes have a ton of service from City airport today. This is probably more about getting pilot hours, familiarity, and all that before the rest comes. But this is very clearly a business, high frequency focus.

If that’s not clear enough, there are no $29 fares here. Ottawa and Montreal will have intro fares starting at C$225 roundtrip while Vancouver is at C$248, which is about US$4, give or take a hundred or two. This is a good fare, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a crazy ULCC barn-burner kind of fare.

In one sense, it’s refreshing to see an offering come out that’s not just about how cheap it can possibly be. On the other hand, these are very competitive markets that are going to be a very, very tough to make a dent in. Will there be enough demand in this “value-focused” segment, where value actually means something different than just “cheap”?

This is just the start, and we know more is coming. It’s hard to say how this is going to go, but it is at least a thoughtful attempt at trying to crack a non-ULCC space. I just don’t know how much room there is in this space, but I’m sure looking forward to finding out.

28 comments on “Porter Version 2.0 Gets Ready to Join the Fray Across Canada

  1. Brett, I’m not entirely sure what raccoons have to do with Canada (other than being an animal in Canada; am I missing a stereotype or trope?), but I dare say that that Toronto airport graphic is an instant classic… I’m not sure that anything can ever top the HND/NRT Godzilla graphic, but I can’t wait to see the YYZ/YTZ raccoon again. :-)

    Apparently I’m out of the loop; I didn’t realize that Embraer was making aircraft as large as the E195 these days. Random, somewhat irrelevant questions on that… (1) How does the E195 compare (in terms of pax experience/comfort) to the A220? (2) Do Canadian pax have much of an anti-Embraer (or pro-Bombardier) bias in Canada, or is that basically irrelevant, especially outside of Montreal/Quebec?

    1. Toronto, Porter’s HQ city, has the highest raccoon population density of any major city, and is well known for human/raccoon encounters, many of which find people rooting for the trash pandas. That’s why Porter’s mascot, Mr. Porter, is, of course, a friendly, sensible raccoon.

      For example, Toronto spent around C$ 31 million developing new “raccoon-proof” trash bins. The raccoons defeated them. Here’s a couple of articles:

      https://www.npr.org/2018/09/16/647599627/theres-no-stopping-toronto-s-uber-raccoon
      https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/08/30/toronto-built-a-better-green-bin-and-oops-maybe-a-smarter-raccoon.html

    2. Kilroy – I was doing it mostly because of the Mr Raccoon mascot, but there is apparently quite the raccoon problem in Toronto as well, so it all just fit together quite nicely.

      The E95-E2 is a little bigger than the A220-100, but it’s smaller then the -300. They do compete for sure. But the A220 is 2-3 across while the E2 is 2-2 across, so the aircraft have a different feel onboard. Both are supposed to be good airplanes, though the A220 has been the clear winner in the US. As for why Porter bought it, I just assume Embraer is desperate and made it very, very affordable.

      1. I hadn’t realized that this is a new generation of E-jets, not the E190s that I’m sure Porter could get in droves on the used market after American, Air Canada, Virgin Australia, etc have retired their fleets. The press release calls Porter the North American launch customer of the E2, which I’d imagine led to a screaming deal as Embraer hopes to get the big North American airlines in.

        As a customer, I’ll never object to an E17x or E19x; they’re the most comfortable narrow body in the sky (in economy). I’ve sat on an A220 for two hours but never left the gate (mechanical cancellation); it’s quite nice too. (I was on the 2-seat side.)

  2. Porter briefly served Melbourne, Fla. (MLB) nonstop from Billy Bishop/City Airport. Which struck me as a long ride in a turboprop. I never flew their service, not needing to travel to Toronto while they were a couple gates over from my AA flights to elsewhere via Charlotte. But I’ve always kind of wondered how popular it was, and what kind of weight restrictions had to be placed on a Q400 to give it such long legs.

    1. We very briefly had one to Charleston, SC too several years before the pandemic. 1x weekly on Saturdays, so I guess they were trying to build a little Snow Goose market to our beaches while they weren’t doing business trips on weekdays. I’m bummed it didn’t work.

      We also had a daily(?) Air Canada CRJ a loooong time ago which also didn’t pan out. Too bad. I’d be curious to learn a little more about why there isn’t much of a Toronto/Montreal market to 2nd tier US cities.

  3. Good luck to them but just a disastrous time, in my view, to be expanding:

    1) Canada is on the cusp of a major recession driven by an impending collapse of the housing market. Will be a multi-year unfolding.

    2) Inflation is really biting on Canadian’s disposable income. People are struggling to afford food costs and rising mortgage costs as interest rates rise. Still relatively early days.

    3) The Canadian dollar is in long term structural decline. Will be exacerbated by the impending global recession, which will drive less oil demand and less demand for CAD. This will be a constant and rising pressure on Porter’s USD costs.

    4) With 1 to 3, Porter will likely have big troubles pricing effectively/having profitable yield levels.

    5) And finally a major one: this is one of the most competitive periods in Canadian airline history. Entering with E2s in a big expansion at a time when Flair, Lynx and Jetlines are adding capacity on top of the usual AC, WestJet, Transat is a head scratcher. I think the order timing is just wrong.

    Good luck to them, but I’d argue the macro and timing couldn’t be worse.

    1. I work cross border and the housing situation is a time bomb indeed. Almost all Canadian mortgages have fixed rates for only five years. As these reset (or renew is their term) its going to be brutally ugly. . . .

  4. Might this turn into a new t-shirt like the famous Tokyo Narita/Haneda/Godzilla’s home? Will we continue to see this map?

  5. The map really highlights the absence of LGA and DCA (because of the lack of Customs facilities at LGA, DCA, and YTZ), which puts a big damper on the convenience at the YTZ end for Toronto-New York/Washington service.

  6. “If that’s not clear enough, there are no $29 fares here. Ottawa and Montreal will have intro fares starting at C$225 roundtrip while Vancouver is at C$248, which is about US$4, give or take a hundred or two. This is a good fare, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a crazy ULCC barn-burner kind of fare.”

    Another remarkable turn of phrase by sir cranky!

  7. Skipped over the whole years-long C-Series/jets at YTZ drama, that was their plan A. Plan B is screw Canadian jets, we’ll fly Brazilian jets out of YYZ (that they can likely get a lot sooner and cheaper)!

  8. Pure speculation here:

    – Coming soon to a theater near you, “Angry, Feral Trash Pandas and Raccoons meet Godzilla.” Sure to be a blockbuster.

    – From what I understand the list price of the E-195-E2 is about 2/3rds of the list price of an A220.

    – Porter will need to replace its Q-400s with a turboprop if it wishes to keep serving Billy Bishop. Embraer is developing a new turboprop.
    ———–

    Totally off the wall speculation:

    I know airline observers sometimes scoff at merger talk – as in “here we go again”, even though we often love to speculate about possible combinations. Question: Could a Porter/Air Transat merger be out of the question at some point down the road?

    Maybe I’m showing my ignorance.

  9. Shades of Max Ward! Porter will go bankrupt, it’s only a question of how long that will take. A year, maybe? Max was a very successful charter operator who decided to go sked. I saw an interview he did on TV many years ago. He explained that when he first bought a 747, it cost $25 million. A new one now would cost him $125 million but the fares were the same so he had no choice but to go sked. At the time, there was only Air Canada and CP Air plus a bunch of regionals. So Max ordered 38 planes: 14 A310, 12 MD88 and 12 Fokker 100. It didn’t take long for him to go bust and the MadDogs and the little Fokkers were never delivered. Today’s environment is even tougher – Air Canada, Westjet and a whole bunch of LCCs, some of which cannot survive.

    1. I agree Porter’s plan is risky. Wardair was nearly 40 years ago, whole different environment. If PD were smart they would gear themselves around AA and due a code-share/joint venture. AA lacks a Canadian partner since CP was bought and AA has a good hub structure to support PD. Connectair or whatever it is starting at YTZ seems to be in bed with AA but PD would be the better partner.

      1. You beat me to it. I was just going to suggest a tie up with AA since AA has moved to number 3 in Canada behind United and Delta.

  10. I would love to see more competition from Porter in serving some of the smaller cities that are currently only served by Air Canada. I live in Denver, and regularly have to fly to Timmins, Sudbury, Val d’Or, etc and the schedules and general quality of service from Air Canada is abysmal. They may seem like small population centers to service, but there’s a lot of money floating around from the natural resources industries. Even better if they could do more flying out of Montreal and avoid Toronto altogether.

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