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The world’s best airline hits turbulence

YouTube/Porter Airlines
Meet Mr. Porter, the Don Draper of cartoon mascots.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Canadians (and a few Americans) love Porter. Justin Trudeau and Air Canada want to shoot it down. Another glass of wine, eh?

Somewhere over western New York

I drained my cabernet franc, set aside my wine glass, and pressed the call button. Instinct made me pivot in my leather seat. Eye contact would surely be needed to flag down assistance. But our stewardess was already charging up the aisle, her pillbox cap jauntily askance, face cherubic and glowing, two plastic cups of wine in hand.

“Did I just read your mind?” she asked coyly, refilling our glasses.

I was sitting in coach, row 15, in a seat for which I’d paid $165, on Porter, the greatest airline you’ve never heard of. And now that you have, book your ticket soon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has blocked airport expansion plans that would let Porter compete with legacy carriers. Investors are restless. A takeover may be in the offing.

In brief: Porter Airlines is what would happen if filmmaker Wes Anderson and master urban planner Robert Moses teamed up to design a regional carrier. From its Toronto hub, Porter flies a small fleet of Bombardier Q400 turboprops around Eastern Canada and a handful of American cities. The airline’s cartoon mascot is Mr. Porter, a besuited raccoon. Onboard there’s free wine served in actual glass glasses and Steam Whistle, a crisp Canadian pilsner. Flight attendants wear retro uniforms. The inflight magazine, re: porter, is published by Winkreative, the same folks behind the upscale global affairs periodical Monocle.

In Toronto, you land at the small island airport named Billy Bishop, then cross the harbor in a new pedestrian tunnel to find yourself standing downtown. (Imagine deplaning on Roosevelt Island in New York City or Île de la Cité in Paris.) On the way home, kill time at Porter’s airport lounge, which has leather chairs, free Wi-Fi, snacks, coffee, tea, sodas and shortbread cookies.

Jet Blue gave us blue potato chips. Virgin installed headrest touchpads for ordering more seltzer. Porter wants to rewind the clock and let you fly like it’s 1959.

Disclaimer: this is not native advertising. And I do not like air travel–and airlines, by extension–as a rule. I avoid flying at every turn. I have taken Amtrak’s 23-hour Silver Meteor from Washington, DC to Miami. I spent three days in second-class on a Chinese train to avoid the five-hour flight from Kunming to Urumqi.

I do not like flying.

I die thousands of times on every flight. I have roasted in a fiery emergency landing in St. John’s, the Newfoundland capital that every back-of-headrest-flight-map-staring aerophobe knows is the first dot of civilization upon crossing the Atlantic. Uighur freedom fighters have detonated suicide belts in unison and sent my body hurtling toward the dark desert floor of Xinjiang. My plane was once t-boned by a NetJet over Kansas City.

In John Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” Francis Weed survives a crash landing and subsequently experiences a spiritual awakening. I land safely on the tarmac and want only to wipe the wine stains from my lips and hide under a duvet.

I do not like flying.

But my jitters aside, flying Porter was a revelation. Our northern neighbors agree: the airline finished first among Canadian airlines in a March poll with an 89% satisfaction rating. For Americans, Porter is a flying speakeasy, news of which spreads by word of mouth. My friend got the tip from a coworker, and I reluctantly let him plan a weekend trip to Toronto so we could give it a try.

If you don’t know you’re Canada-bound after boarding a Porter flight, you figure it out pretty quickly. The airline oozes northern charm. The spring issue of re:porter magazine has an adorable three-page interview with its marketing coordinator about post-its and how eager she is to visit Pittsburgh. (“There’s also a famous burger there that’s served with fries inside–yeah, I’m going to be trying one of those.”) When I compared the airline’s ambitious chief executive, Robert Deluce, to British mogul Richard Branson, a Porter spokesman demurred modestly.

“Maybe it’s typically Canadian,” he told me, “but Bob wouldn’t relate to somebody like that.”

There is something about Porter that captures Canada’s brand of sunny-but-sober-minded optimism. Humans are flawed and foolish. We will not make this world a paradise. But we can make it a bit better with a smidge of extra effort. Porter isn’t a miracle. It’s about 21% better than the average carrier. And that’s what we ought to hope for–and what we deserve.

Cornucopian service makes business sense too. My friend and I drank a bottle of Jackson Triggs Black Reserve 2014 Cabernet Franc between us on the flight home. It retails for CAD$14. For a month after returning home, I grabbed friends by their lapels to rave about Porter. That’s not customer service; that’s low-cost advertising.

Landing at Billy Bishop Airport is an advertisement for Toronto too, said Kevin Keane, a marketing executive who flies Porter four or five times a year.

“It’s an amazing introduction to Toronto,” he told me. “It’s almost as if you could reach out and touch the skyscrapers.”

And now they want to kill it.

Porter launched in 2006 with CAD$125 million in seed money from investors and rolled the dice on a derelict island airport that Air Canada had largely abandoned. The upstart airline racked up heavy losses early on, as expected: by 2010, it had accumulated CAD$306 million in debt.

In 2013, Porter requested a revision to the airport’s charter that would allow jets on the island. With long-range planes, Porter hoped to expand service to Western Canada, San Francisco, Miami and the Caribbean. The proposal would have also boosted the struggling Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier, which signed a preliminary contract with Porter for a dozen CSeries 100 jets and options for another 18, in a deal valued at more than CAD$2 billion.

Enter the Liberal Party of Canada. Adam Vaughan and Olivia Chow, two prominent Toronto politicians, have viciously fought the expansion plans.

Why? Chow, a New Democrat, says she prefers waterfront development to focus on new parks and other public amenities. And some downtown residents fear that the 400-meter runway extension needed to accommodate jets would be an eyesore and that more passengers will exacerbate traffic congestion.

Porter boosters see naked NIMBYism at play. At the time, rightwing blogger Mitch Wolfe derided Porter detractors like Vaughan as “SWADEs”: Smug, White, Arrogant Downtown Elitists. That Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mayor Rob Ford were boosters for Billy Bishop Airport did not likely endear the plan to Liberals either.

Whatever the origin of local Liberals’ vendetta, the national party’s victory last October sealed the airport’s fate. Vaughan, who had just won election as a Liberal MP, lobbied Prime Minister Trudeau’s new transport minister, who then killed Porter’s proposal with a terse tweet.

Air Canada’s influence likely helped sink the deal too. For years, company executives have whined endlessly to the financial press about their rival’s enviable downtown location. Faced with wider competition and–gasp!–the prospect of maybe needing to toss customers a free beer and a smile to keep pace, Air Canada commissioned a report from consulting firm Oliver Wyman to undercut Porter’s proposal and waged a public relations campaign against the expansion.

Air Canada, for its part, disputes that characterization.

“Our concern is not increased competition but artificial barriers that prevent us from competing, especially if the airport was to be expanded,” wrote Peter Fitzpatrick, a company spokesman, in an email, noting that Porter controls 85% of daily flight slots. “It is indisputable they have been granted a private monopoly on a public facility, a situation unprecedented in our industry.”

Porter, he added, is “welcome to acquire jets and compete out of Toronto Pearson,” the main airport on the city’s outskirts.

And if it did?

“Air Canada and WestJet would squeeze Porter until there’s no more blood left at the blood bank,” said Robert Kokonis, president of AirTrav Inc., a Toronto-based airline consulting firm.

The agreement governing the island airport expires in 2033, and further opposition from Liberal pols, cranky neighbors and Air Canada could shutter it permanently. Porter may be shot from the skies before then. Its growth stunted, the airline appears to be discreetly shopping for a buyer.

“They’re kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Kokonis told me. “If you’re not growing, you’re dead.”

And that is why we can’t have nice things.

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