Porter Airlines became a high-flying crush object for its style, convenience, and intimate service. Now that the company plans to expand—and environmentalists like David Miller and Margaret Atwood are up in arms about it—Porter’s bigger-is-better approach could turn off even its most ardent admirers.
The first few times I flew Porter Airlines, I arrived at the Toronto Island airport deliberately, almost absurdly, early. Not to make sure I caught my flight, but just so I could hang out at the terminal. It was unlike almost every airport I’d been to, the waiting area akin to the private lounges restricted to business-class passengers. But at the island, it was open to everybody. There were free newspapers, free shortbread cookies, free espresso served in warm china cups. The lighting was pleasant, the armchairs even more so. It was cozier than my apartment. And once you got on your plane, the pampering continued. The flight attendants were uncommonly friendly, the in-flight magazine slick, the beer and wine free, and served in real glasses. The flights were a bit cheaper, too, and suddenly, not having been to New York in a few years, I was flying there every four or five months. (Full disclosure: I also now write for that slick in-flight magazine.)
I was not alone. Porter opened its doors in 2006, and within months, it had transformed air travel in Toronto. In an industry hardly known these days for its cuddly customer service, Porter harkened back to an old school, more civilized, experience. If other airlines were like boyfriends who were chronically late and forgot your birthday, Porter was the swain who fed you bonbons and painted your toenails while you lay on the couch watching Downton Abbey. It promised, and delivered, “flying refined.”
Beginning with turboprop flights to Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax, the company quickly increased its service to 19 North American cities. The proximity of the airport to the financial district and an ever-growing condo community along the water made it even more attractive. Porter had 300,000 passengers in its first year, and towards the end of 2013, 10 million people had flown on its planes. Last November, a Condé Nast Traveler reader’s survey chose Porter as its top small airline in the world (WestJet came in fifth).
Crucially, the strength of the brand managed to dispel, even transcend, the controversy, scandal, and anger that surrounded the airline’s very creation. But now that Porter has proposed an expansion of the island airport, that loyalty is being tested. The proposal to enlarge the airport to allow larger jets to service more far-flung destinations has sharply divided Toronto—witness the anti- and pro-signs on front porches and yards all the way from the waterfront to North York—and the plan now awaits its fate at City Hall, with the scheduling of a vote on the matter to be determined soon. The main concerns about expansion—greater pollution and noise, a massive disruption of other waterfront activities, potential safety issues—are complicated and legitimate. But Porter may end up losing this battle for an entirely different reason: Its growth could end up diminishing the intimacy and convenience that made people fans in the first place. If its current level of service turns out not be scalable, no amount of free cookies will quell its diehard customers’ wrath.
Long a thorn in the side of island residents, city council, and proponents of waterfront revitalization, the island airport opened in 1939, on land that was home to, among other things, a baseball stadium and numerous residential cottages (all were razed). It was used for military purposes during World War II, and then for recreational and limited commuter and regional flights in the decades following. But demand waned and its provincial and federal subsidies were cut. Neither Air Canada, nor Porter precursor Canada 3000 were able to successfully exploit the airport’s potential, and it looked like it might be shuttered.
It became even more of a flashpoint when its operation was taken over in 1999 by the Toronto Port Authority (TPA), a federally appointed agency despised for its secrecy, fiscal mismanagement, and disdain for municipal government (to which it’s not accountable). One example: For nearly a decade after its formation, the TPA refused to pay the standard municipal service fees. The agency and the city fought bitterly over the issue. The dispute was finally settled this month, something observers suggest only happened because of Porter’s expansion proposal.
But Robert Deluce, Porter’s founder and CEO, had deep ties to the airport. He learned to fly there when he was 16, and his late father’s now-defunct airline, Air Ontario, ran flights out of there in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The TPA is legally required to be financially self-sufficient, and Porter promised to turn the sleepy, cash-strapped island airport, renamed Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in 2009, into a money-making machine. And, indeed, in 2012, the TPA reported a record profit of $19.7 million.
Deluce initially said that his airline would only get off the ground if the city built a bridge to the airport. While in office, Mayor Mel Lastman approved the project. David Miller became the next mayor in part because of his opposition to the bridge: Upon election in 2003, he cancelled its construction. Deluce threatened to sue for $500 million, but the TPA ended up doing the dirty work. The agency and the city settled out of court for $35 million, $20 million of which went to Deluce’s company. In 2005, the port authority announced that it had purchased a new ferry boat and was making improvements to the airport terminal. The next year, a federal inquiry into the TPA’s operation revealed that in order to obtain investment capital, Deluce had negotiated a special clause in a port authority agreement that allowed him to sue the feds again if they closed the airport. In 2012, the TPA broke ground on a new pedestrian tunnel to the airport.
While Deluce managed, for the most part, to float above the fray, it seemed the resulting political dustups and public outrage would forever tarnish his company’s reputation. But the Porter experience quickly became the company’s best defence: Its charm offensive worked. While a Conference Board of Canada report last summer maintained that household spending on air travel had declined for the first time since the recession, Porter has, at least according to Deluce, posted profits for the past two years. (A private company, its financials are not made public.)
In some ways, it’s an age-old retail story. Just as customers don’t usually dwell on (or care about) about Amazon’s annihilation of indie bookshops when they order a discounted copy of The Goldfinch, flyers were willing to turn a blind eye to Porter’s more Machiavellian side. For most consumers, most of the time, convenience trumps all. And when a product is packaged as smartly and attractively as Porter’s is, it’s even easier to forget the cost of that convenience.
Or is it? In early 2013, Deluce started talking expansion again—and this time, his plans were even bolder. He wanted to take Torontonians further—to Vancouver, Vegas, and Havana—and he was going to bring bigger, louder jets downtown to do so. On the surface, the plan was absurd. It flew in the face, so to speak, of a longstanding agreement between the city, Transport Canada, and the TPA that heretofore prohibited jets in the downtown core. It would potentially increase the already terrible congestion around the airport, not to mention elevating noise and pollution levels. It might, some feared, spell the end of the islands as parkland, and the waterfront as welcoming public commons. And, as far as Porter was concerned, wouldn’t expansion ruin its boutique charm?
When Deluce set out to create the Porter brand, he tapped Winkreative, the U.K.-based ad agency founded by Canadian ex-pat Tyler Brûlé. It was a shrewd, and revealing, hire, and instantly conferred upon Porter the kind of cool you would never associate with, say, Air Canada. Brûlé was the brains behind Wallpaper and Monocle magazines, a lifestyle guru well known around the world (if occasionally mocked) for his unerring design divination. Deluce loved the agency’s sleek, understated overhaul of Swissair’s corporate identity in 2001. With his input, Wink put together a complete, and consistently stylish, package for Porter. It conceptualized everything from the flight attendants’ retro pillbox hats to its print advertising, which often features a nattily attired raccoon named Mr. Porter. “Right from the beginning,” Deluce says, “we wanted to set ourselves apart from other airlines in terms of service levels and sophistication. What developed was a brand and style that has a certain distinctiveness but is also approachable.”
Porter benefitted from a concurrent consumer appetite for the small, the authentic, the local. “We recognized we were a regional carrier,” Deluce says, “strongly identified with Toronto. Canadian in every way.” Accordingly, the planes were manufactured here (by Bombardier), the on-board beer brewed here (by Steamwhistle), and the flight-attendant uniforms designed here (by Pink Tartan). Even Mr. Porter seemed tailor-made for Toronto, famously North America’s raccoon capital.
The local connections went even deeper. Porter’s appeal and success certainly lay with its singular service, but it was also bound up in how Toronto, or at least large parts of the old city, saw itself. “Porter has reinforced ideas of Toronto among a certain audience,” says Clive Veroni, a brand consultant and the author of the upcoming book Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on Its Head. “Those who perceive themselves to be sophisticated, downtown urbanites. People who, when they travel, don’t want to go to just the touristy restaurants they read about in guidebooks.”
Despite David Miller’s opposition to the airport’s earlier expansion, the Porter brand fit perfectly into the image of the city that was cultivated during his mayoralty. Toronto had become a global city, cultured, affluent, and cosmopolitan, pro-business and progressive. In a way, Porter made the world smaller, and us bigger. Suddenly, in theory anyway, Torontonians could be the kind of people who fly to New York to catch an Off-Broadway show, or hop to Tremblant for a ski weekend. It was, to indulge in a bit of marketing speak, an aspirational brand.
While critics dismiss the airline as one that caters only to frequent-flying business elites or spendthrift hipsters—city councillor Adam Vaughan has called it a “boutique service”—it reached far beyond those perceived demographics. A few years into its existence, it began to fly to underserviced, less-glamorous routes like Windsor and Sudbury. And the kind of passenger it attracted changed, too.
Chris Duggan is a 33-year-old teacher in Vaughan. He rarely travels, and when he does, it’s usually back to his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. When I call him to discuss his affection for Porter, in a weird coincidence, he’s already on the phone with one of the airline’s customer service reps. He’s trying to change a flight that he’s booked home, and when he calls me back, he reports that they’ve changed his flight with no additional charge. “They were awesome,” he says. After rhyming off some of his favourite qualities (the friendliness of staff, the price of airfares, the relative ease of the security process), he sums up his Porter experiences thusly: “I feel important when I’m there.”
In April, 2013, Porter issued a press release saying that it had conditionally purchased 12 Bombardier CS100 aircraft, supposedly much quieter and cleaner than older jetliners, with delivery set for 2016. These new jets, the airline said, would permit Porter to fly all over North America and the Caribbean—“Destinations where people really want to go,” Deluce says now. There were two snags, however: One, the runways were too short to accommodate the larger aircraft, and worse, jets had been prohibited in the city as part of an agreement signed in 1983 between the TPA, Transport Canada, and the city.
The TPA and the feds would have happily amended the agreement, but City Hall was a different story. A series of staff reports on the expansion proposal all urged caution, saying that the city still didn’t have enough information about noise, pollution, infrastructure, or economic cost.
Proponents of an expanded airport, unlikely bedfellows like Mayor Rob Ford and urban studies bigwig Richard Florida, claim it would greatly enhance economic development and the city’s global reputation. “The island airport is among the best advertisements for Toronto,” Florida wrote in the Star. The airline’s list of supporters includes Paul Godfrey and former Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour, and on Porterplans.com the company says the expansion will create a thousand new jobs and, it implies, greatly increase the $2 billion in economic output the airport already provides.
Opponents, like Margaret Atwood and David Miller,* argue the exact opposite—that, from an environmental, health, and planning perspective, the effect of expansion on the waterfront would be ruinous. Seventy-six per cent of passengers travel to the airport by car or taxi, they claim, and if numbers double, this will result in well over a million additional car trips within the city. André Sorensen, a University of Toronto geography professor and a supporter of NoJetsT.O., is dismissive of the intrinsic value of a downtown airport. “Yes, airports are huge economic assets and an essential piece of a major city,” says Sorensen. “But we have a great airport and it’s Pearson. And, based on current trends, Pearson has capacity for the next 25 years.” He compares Billy Bishop to the London City Airport, a development near Canary Wharf that he says has been disastrous for the area: Excessive jet noise levels have scuttled further development in surrounding neighbourhoods.
Clive Veroni points out that support for a bigger Porter is “very broad, but shallow. They’re not going to City Hall in support of expansion. The opposition, on the other hand, is narrower but deeper.” A casual canvas of people who regularly fly the airline suggests a vague, on-the-fence, wait-and-see attitude towards the expansion. “I do worry that I’m going to lose a bit of service,” Chris Duggan says. Others are more optimistic. Lise Snelgrove, an entrepreneur who booked her first Porter flight two weeks after it opened its doors, argues that the airline continues to deliver the same great experience it did on that first flight. “I’m not worried the proposed expansion will diminish the Porter experience,” she tells me. “This high standard of service is ingrained in its culture.”
But how important is scale to that culture? When I asked Deluce about how Porter was able to deliver such a compelling customer experience when other airlines could not, he said that it was because Porter was “small” and had “more control over its product.” If, as city reports suggest, the airline starts serving 4.4 million passengers—one possible growth scenario—will Porter be able to consistently deliver its intimate service? Expansion and ubiquity have the potential to dilute a brand, and usually do. The Feist you loved when she played with Broken Social Scene at Wavelength is not the same Feist whose CDs your parents now buy at Starbucks. And already, even at Porter’s current service levels, some of the bloom is off the rose: You have to pay to check your luggage now on many flights and on my last trip back from New York, they ran out of Steamwhistle—not a huge deal, but for an airline that strenuously prides itself on the details, it’s telling.
Even worse, how much of a convenience will Billy Bishop continue to be with that many people squeezing into a space that, no matter how many infrastructural improvements are made, was never built for such density? Especially after the rail link from Union to Pearson is complete and you can get to Pearson just as quickly. And then there’s the matter of other, less beguiling, airlines taking advantage of an expanded downtown airport—both WestJet and Air Canada have purchased new jets they’d like to fly out of Billy Bishop, too.
So, sure, Torontonians once fell in love with Deluce’s baby, but will they still have affection for it as an aggressive, bullying teenager?
CORRECTION, JAN. 24, 2014: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the board of Waterfront Toronto is opposed to the airport expansion. They are not opposed to the expansion per se but rather have urged caution, saying that “the serious transportation, road congestion and community impact issues created by the airport’s current operations need to be addressed before considering expansion and the potential exacerbation of these issues.”