By ERIC ATKINS, TRANSPORTATION REPORTER & ANDREW WILLIS & NICOLAS VAN PRAET | MAY 20, 2021
Porter Airlines has approached Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and other airports in southern Ontario about establishing a passenger jet service postpandemic, sources say, a shift in strategy for the carrier that is blocked from flying jets at its base on the Toronto Islands.
Porter’s move comes as the carrier is reportedly buying 30 passenger jets from Embraer of Brazil.
Porter has long sought to fly jets out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, but those plans have been prevented by the federal government owing to concerns that include noise, pollution and the impact of the longer runway that would be required.
“We’re not relocating from Billy Bishop to any airport,” said Brad Cicero, a Porter spokesman, who declined to address a question about seeking slots at Toronto Pearson.
Porter’s founder and executive chairman Robert Deluce did not respond to interview requests. Porter declined to make Michael Deluce, the founder’s son and current chief executive, available for an interview.
Porter’s talks with the airport authorities are preliminary, according to two people familiar with the matter whom the Globe and Mail agreed not to name because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In addition to Toronto Pearson, Porter has approached airports including Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener and London, one of the sources said. The airports declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
On May 13, trade publication Airfinance Journal reported Porter is the buyer of 30 Embraer E195 E2 jets, a narrow-body medium-range jet that seats as many as 150 people. Embraer declined by e-mail to name the buyer of the jets.
Porter flies a fleet of 29 Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes that hold about 65 to 78 people.
Mr. Cicero would not answer questions about the reported purchase of the Embraer planes. “This isn’t our order,” he said. “We have no plans to switch our fleet. Our focus continues to be on relaunching operations in 2021 with the existing Dash 8-400 fleet.”
John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said Porter has no room to grow at its Toronto island airport base, and is forced to fly planes at less-than capacity owing to the short, 3,900-foot runway. He speculated the airline is relaunching itself with a new fleet prior to a sale. (Porter’s public offering in 2010 failed.)
“It’s a radical departure from the airline that we know,” said Addison Schonland of boutique aerospace consultancy AirInsight. “The business model looks like it is changing.”
Porter in 2013 placed a $2-billion conditional order for as many as 30 Bombardier CSeries jets, now known as the Airbus A220. The airline sought to extend the island airport runway by 200 metres to accommodate the larger aircraft but faced stiff local opposition.
In 2015, then transport minister Marc Garneau blocked Porter’s plans to fly jets from the island.
That decision stands, a spokeswoman for current Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said. “Our government has no plans to amend the tripartite agreement between the federal government, the City of Toronto and PortsToronto to allow jet aircraft to use Billy Bishop Airport,” Allison St-Jean said.
“There are no plans or negotiations to discuss jets at Billy Bishop Airport with either of our tripartite partners,” said Deborah Wilson, a spokeswoman for PortsToronto, the government agency that owns and operates the airport.
An Airbus spokeswoman said: “While we of course would welcome more Canadian carriers to select the Canadian designed and built A220, we do not comment on discussion we may or may not be having with airlines.”
Porter’s 2013 order is not part of Airbus’s backlog list, which had 494 planes ordered but not yet built at the end of April, 2021. Airbus is building A220 jets at a rate of five a month in factories in Mirabel, Que. and Mobile, Ala., with plans to expand output when appropriate to a maximum of 14 planes a month.
Porter, which has not flown since March 21, 2020, owing to the pandemic, recently pushed back its relaunch date to July 20.
Privately-owned Porter, which employed 1,500 before the pandemic, flies to several Canadian, U.S. and holiday destinations, but is perhaps best known for business travel given its proximity to downtown Toronto. Business travel is expected to recover from the pandemic last, after family-related flights and tourism.
In good times, Porter accounts for 85 per cent of plane traffic at the island airport, while Air Canada makes up the rest. Porter sold the airport terminal to Nieuport Aviation, controlled by New York-based J.P. Morgan Asset Management Inc., in 2015 for more than $700-million.
Neil Pakey, CEO of Nieuport, declined to comment on Porter’s plan for jets at other airports. Mr. Pakey said he and the airline are focused on Porter’s restart in July.
Porter’s talks come as it continues discussions with the federal government over financial aid to blunt the effects of the pandemic on the business. In March, 2020, the airline received a $135-million loan through Export Development Canada and indicated earlier in May that it is in negotiations for more aid. The government has said any help from the taxpayer comes with conditions that include “protecting jobs across the air sector.”