Porter Tries to Create an Advantage in Montréal


Porter has a big task ahead of itself as it expands beyond its original model. In a crowded market, Porter’s plan is to try to recreate the advantage it has built in Toronto over in Montréal by serving a different airport in Saint-Hubert. This looks like more of an uphill climb than in Toronto.

In Toronto, there is the big, bad Pearson airport. When Porter started, its whole plan was to fly from close-in and heavily restricted Toronto/City airport which is right near downtown and much closer than Pearson. City airport had short runways and isn’t allowed to be served by jets, so its potential reach was always going to be limited. But proximity was the key selling point and would given Porter an identity as it got off the ground.

After building out the Toronto network, Porter expanded beyond with more flying in other cities in Eastern Canada like Ottawa, Montréal, and Halifax. But now that it has acquired Embraer E2 jets, it has to find good ways to deploy them as well.

The initial plan has been to connect big cities across Canada. These are big and crowded markets, and Porter is relying on its more boutique-style service level to get an edge. But the boutique plan loses a lot of juice when you still have to use the same airports as everyone else. In Montréal, Porter is and has always been at the main airport, Trudeau (formerly Dorval) (YUL), but it now has a new plan.

Montréal is an island that has a population of about 2 million people. That has grown 3.2 percent since 2016. To the east of Montréal, across the St Lawrence River, lies a faster growing part of town led by Longueuil. Between 2016 and 2021, that area went grew by 5.6 percent to nearly three-quarters of a million. Right in the middle of that lies Montréal Saint-Hubert Longueuil Airport (YHU).

Porter’s plan is to build a new terminal with the airport that will have 9 gates and can serve up to 4 million people a year. The airline says it will be modeled on the Toronto/City terminal. And while Porter will serve both YHU and YUL, it sees opportunity for up to 10 routes from YHU as far as Vancouver and St John’s. The airline will serve both Toronto airports from YHU and will use a mix of E2s and Q400 props in the market when the terminal opens next year.

If Porter’s plan is to just rely on traffic originating from that side of the St Lawrence, this probably isn’t going to work. But Porter is trying to bank on people actually crossing the river from Montréal itself.

From downtown Montréal to YUL, there is frequent bus service and with no traffic it’s a 20 minute drive in a car. To get to Saint-Hubert, there is a bridge, but it should also take about 20 minutes to drive that as well. Of course, there’s often traffic, but that can go both ways. So just assume that right from the center of the city, it’s about the same time required to get to either airport. So why would anyone choose YHU?

If you assume that passengers can arrive much later and spend far less time at the airport before departure, that’s the instant savings there. It’s that whole boutique vibe being extended to the airport.

There’s little question this will be an uphill battle for the airlnie. Right now, there is only a small regional operator at the airport, so it’s rarely if ever top of mind for travelers in the area. But with Porter having a presence in both airports, it will at least have an opportunity to try and train its customers.

I like the effort if only because Porter is entering very crowded markets, and this is one way it can try to stand out and draw share. It’s already a very tough task ahead of the airline, so maybe this can help… albeit with more money going out the door to build the terminal. Then it has to hope it actually can train passengers to use the airport. That’s not so easy unless fares are cheap, and that’s the opposite of what the very non-ULCC Porter needs to happen.

One thing is certain… this would have been a whole lot easier if a big chunk of flying actually moved to far out Mirabel (YMX) back when that effort was underway. Once people have to start considering multiple airports, it gets easier to add in more. But for now, this is a new concept for most people in the area. While far from a guaranteed success, it’s the kind of move an airline like Porter needs to make to help differentiate itself.

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17 comments on “Porter Tries to Create an Advantage in Montréal

  1. For those who are familiar with the Montreal area, how much of a chokepoint is the St. Lawrence River (in terms of traffic delays & variability), vs traffic heading between downtown & YUL? Also, are there significant numbers of businesspeople and upper-middle-class (or higher) earners who live on the YHU side of the river?

    There are plenty of metro areas in the US where river/bay crossings can make for really bad or unpredictable traffic, such that the potential time savings pax might gain from a smaller airport could be offset by time required to allow for potential traffic delays.

    1. As a former Montreal resident, I feel Ineed to weigh in on this issue. Anther competitive factor to take into account, is Montreal’s new light rail (REM) service, which is scheduled to link YUL (P.E. Trudeau Airport) to downtown Montreal. The REM system will cross the St. Lawrence River (a huge transportation bottleneck) down to Brossard but not to YHU (St Hubert/Lingueuil). It is an additional 18 kilometers (18 minutes) from Brossard to YHU, and vice versa. The only really viable solution for YHU is a direct REM link to either the Metro system or downtown Montreal.

  2. I think there’s one other factor that Porter’s banking on that wasn’t discussed: How many people fly to Billy Bishop not for the convenience of downtown Toronto, but that they don’t have to deal with the utter insanity that is Pearson? There’s a reason why YYZ has consistently been voted one of the worst airports in North America. Here’s a poorly-kept secret: YUL is worse than YYZ. Overcrowded, not enough room to walk, long distances to gates…it’s the ninth circle of Hell. How many fliers, if given the choice, would want to avoid all that? If Porter has service to where they’re going, YHU is, to quote the tagline used back in the day for another secondary airport, MDW, the hassle-free option.

    It’s good that you’ve focused on getting to the airport, but there may be another, more important thing to focus on: getting out of the airport. Landing is only just the beginning of the adventure. There’s taxiing, gate exit, exiting the secure area, baggage claim, going to parking or renting a car, and leaving the airport. How much time does that add on to a trip? That time would be substantially greater at YUL than at YHU, especially if Porter is building something bespoke at YHU that would minimize that time. Any advantage that YUL would have of being on the island would be decimated by the fact that it’s YUL, and nothing comes easy there.

    The first step in training their customers is making them aware that there are advantages to the alternative. If Porter starts blanketing Montreal with ads, bilingual of course, extoling the virtues of YHU and how it’s the stress-free option, they may have a winner here.

    1. You are SO right! YUL is as user-unfriendly of an airport as I can think of anywhere. Nasty to deal with (both the facility and the people manning it). And the PITA of that place has been left out of Cranky’s calculation. This would seem to be a brilliant plan, in my opinion.

  3. I learned to fly at St. Hubert but that was several lifetimes ago. This ain’t gonna work and moves Porter one step closer to their inevitable bankruptcy. Lots of well-heeled potential fliers live on the west island, much closer to YUL. You also have to recognize that YUL is a major hub and that a large percentage of passengers (don’t know the number) are not orginating or terminating but connecting through. In fact, on our next trip we’ll be connecting through YUL on our way to Lyon. Any connections through YHU have to be awfully limited.

  4. I’m kind of puzzled why they went with st Hubert. There are plenty of people who live on the south shore of course but they’re relatively close to the island, mostly further west, and the REM will make getting to the airport even easier.

    There are a LOT more people who live in st Jerome and thereabouts which is a lot farther and those people rarely come into the city. They would have been easy to capture at Mirabel.

    I’m guessing st Hubert already having minimal passenger service today made it easier

  5. Wasn’t there another international airport in Montreal? I think it was called Mirabelle. Please forgive the spelling.

    1. Interesting side story. When I was up in Montreal a few months ago, I drove up to Mirabel on a lark. The terminal, parking garage, and rental car facility have been torn down, but the shuttered airport hotel is still there. It still has an overhead corridor over the road toward where the parking garage once was. There are some old mobile lounges just sitting in a field. The Bombardier factory was there, with a few C-series/A220 aircraft on the ramp in Air Baltic livery.

      The whole place seemed eerily quiet and abandoned (even though there is still the freight facility by the other runway). Hard to believe this was once the international airport.

  6. I fly to Dorval pretty frequently and have never had an issue with the airport. I’m normally using the transborder part of the airport, aided with my Nexus card, so that helps. Montreal highways aren’t the best but getting to the airport isn’t too bad. The rental car facility is conveniently across the street from the terminal (although it’s been under construction for years). Once in the terminal, clearing security, doing US preclearance, and walking to the gate takes about 10 minutes. I have done domestic also, and Westjet and Porter (and even FirstAir/Canadian North) were pretty easy. Even AC has not been terrible. (They’re always late, but getting through the airport was non-eventful.)

    (Processing security during Covid lockdowns was a major hassle, but that was Canada/Quebec policies and rules, not the airport itself.)

    Arriving transborder does involve a lengthy walk, since immigration/customs is in the international part of the airport, but it’s pretty painless once there (again with Nexus).

    Getting across the river can be a pain with the bridge traffic. Just did a Google maps check from center of the island (ParkEx) and it’s 20 minutes to Dorval, 40 minutes to St Hubert, and 30 minutes out to Mirabel.

  7. Montreal for some reason has never generated the amount of flight traffic one would expect from a city that size, with a metro of 4.29 million. For comparison, Boston is about 4.44 million, Detroit about 4.37 million, and Seattle about 4.02 million. Pre-pandemic passenger traffic, Montreal was 20.31 million, Boston was 42.52 million, Detroit was 36.77 million, and Seattle was 51.83 million. YUL has really failed to grow into a major hub, and honestly given those numbers, likely has a travel demand that could be induced. YVR had 26.38 million, with a metro area of just 2.64 million. Montreal’s air traffic is ridiculously low for a city of that size.

    Porter will largely compete on the convenience factor of a small, less complicated airport. YUL is definitely not an optimally designed major airport, so Porter can create some advantage from that. Porter will likely do well with the three-quarter million on the east side of the river. That alone could potentially support 1-2 million annually in air traffic. However, with a city with such relatively low air traffic, Porter could probably stimulate some demand. If anyone can explain why Montreal has relatively low air traffic, I’d appreciate it.

    Obviously this is still very much an uphill battle for Porter.

    1. Well, let me try. Pure speculation on my part. I think it’s the French factor. Maybe the Quebecois are more inward looking and given that they are surrounded by English speakers, they have more incentive to stay put and not venture forth. I don’t have numbers but I also suspect that immigrants avoid Montreal due to language and would far rather be in Toronto or Vancouver. They generate a lot of traffic with themselves visiting the home country and bringing fond grandparents over for a holiday etc etc. I’m open to any other idea that might explain it.

      1. As a Montrealer for five years back in the late 00s, I’ll put some thoughts into this discussion.

        Re Annual PAX: the effects of the 70s Separatist movement saw the exodus of the financial sector and a lot of head offices to Toronto. Montreal still has HQs, Supranational organisation’s like ICAO, IATA, and the software sector, it is however primarily a blue collar city. Tourism is a strong sector. The Quebec economy is quite weak, not as strong as Toronto/Ontario so yields are probably lower.

        YUL is encircled by development and rich neighbours. So it only has two quite short runways so it would struggle to be a hub. I’ll make enough mention of the white elephant Mirabel here….

        Airports wise, Burlington and Plattsburgh steal some trade being 2 hours away. US ticket prices are far lower than in Canada.

        Vancouver gets all the Asian traffic with strong tourism and cultural links. Not forgetting the lure of Whistler Blackcomb, as well being the international hub into Calgary (for Banff and Lake Louise). Calgary is still a minor international hub.

        Immigration wise, it is mainly immigrants from French speaking countries, Haiti, Lebanon, and France :)

        As for Saint Huberts location, it is a very industrial area and there are medium and low income suburbs. There are some minor pockets of wealth. Porter could win some corporate contracts from the industrial base using Saint Hubert. But the main areas of wealth are on the West Island and the central suburbs of Westmount and Outremont – all closer to YUL. Crossing the bridges can be a nightmare, at least the over passes are not falling down like they used to.

  8. Are they financing the terminal, or otherwise do they have any means of keeping competitors out? Seems it wouldn’t be difficult for bigger airlines to attempt to crowd them out of critical routes.

  9. Without any international or transborder traffic, is Porter counting on the model of “if you build it, they will come”, since this will be all domestic traffic. It could also go the same direction of what Avelo is doing in New Haven.

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