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.