My Ride to Montreal from Toronto – MSN 400, registration C-GHKR – Photo: Peter J.M. Harrington-Cressman
Sometimes, when you are a true aviation enthusiast, you do things that some people would consider weird or unorthodox. Maybe you are wanting to fly just to experience a certain aircraft type. Or maybe it’s a Saturday evening and you want to catch up with a buddy you haven’t seen for a long time. In my case, I had a number of Aeroplan points that were going to expire. So, I decided to use those points and fly one of my closest friends and myself from Toronto to Montreal and back again — in the same evening.
For at least the last 30-40 years, Air Canada has operated almost hourly flights, known as Rapidair, on what is an extremely busy route between two of Canada’s largest cities; Toronto (YYZ) and Montreal (YUL), which is about an hour and fifteen minute flight. The route has a lot of competition: WestJet, Porter, Air Canada, and even VIA Rail. Of course, most travelers just want the least expensive flight, with the best frequency.
As I was doing this flight on points, I had basically only Air Canada to choose from. As a general rule, I don’t like WestJet – I’ve never had a good flight with them and sometimes all the busy business traveler wants is quiet, attentive service without the comedy shtick. But I digress. What makes these Air Canada Rapidair flights interesting is that there is a wide cross-section of equipment types used on these flights – everything from Dash 8s all the way to A330s. The flight that I picked for my buddy Justen and me was Air Canada flight 834 — being operated by an Airbus A330-300.
Cheers: Everyone gets treated like they are flying first class — including free wine and beer. Jeers: Some people might not like riding on a turbo-prop. Overall: This is the way flying should be — and a rarity to find it on a regional carrier.
Porter Airlines Bombardier Q400 sits at Toronto.
THE FULL PORTER AIRLINES REVIEW:
During a recent trip to Toronto, I had the opportunity to fly to Montreal and back using Porter airlines (disclosure: the trip was paid for by Bombardier to check out their Cseries in Montreal). Being based in Seattle and flying Horizon/Alaska quite a bit, I am no stranger to the Q400 aircraft. There have been quite a few times that when I talk to people about the Q400, I am asked if I have tried Porter Airlines. Luckily, I can now say that I have — and that is a good thing.
When flying Porter Airlines, getting to the airport was half the fun. I walked about a mile (could have easily taken a cab, bus or subway, but it was a nice morning), hopped on a shuttle bus, then took the world’s shortest ferry ride. For those that love anything that involves transportation, the experience is pretty cool. So why a ferry? Well, that is kind of a long story.
After arriving at Billy Bishop airport, be sure to turn around and catch the view of the ferry with Toronto in the background.
Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is located on an island in Toronto and is restricted to prop aircraft and helicopters. When Porter first began looking at starting operations there, they were under the assumption that a bridge would be built to allow easy access. There was some fun political stuff that went down and no bridge has been built. Instead, the airport runs a small ferry that can hold cars and passengers from the “mainland” over to the island. Don’t blink, because you might miss the ride — it is the shortest ferry ride in the world.
The Toronto Port Authority is in the process of creating a pedestrian tunnel that will allow easier access and reduce the onslaught of passengers that come with each arriving ferry. The ferry will still operate once the tunnel is completed (which they are expecting to be done in 2014), to handle car traffic and presumably passengers who want to get the full experience.
I was staying in downtown Toronto and decided to make the one mile walk to the Royal York Hotel, where Porter Airlines operates a free shuttle to the ferry . Even with the walk, shuttle and ferry, it was less than an hour from my hotel room to my gate, which was quite impressive.
Porter Airlines waiting area is nicer than some airline first class lounges I have been in -- and everyone gets access.
Since all I had was a camera, it was quick and easy for me to get through security. Every time I go through airport security any place that is not in the US, I am reminded how much better it can be. I was greeted with a big smile and asked how I was doing (what… is this a trick?). I asked if I needed to take off my shoes and I was told no. He looked at my belt and said, “that might make the alarm go off,” and I explained it never had before and he let me through (very different from the barking orders that the TSA gives).
This is when things really get different. Instead of having a bunch of uncomfortable seats with bad lighting, the Porter Airlines waiting area is like a first class lounge — and a good one at that. I have been in a few first class lounges of other airlines that have been worse than Porter’s waiting area. There are free drinks and snacks, nothing major, but still impressive. There is free wifi and plenty of comfortable seating.This all comes at no extra charge and is just part of the Porter experience.
Before my flight I had an opportunity to sit down with Brad Cicero and Amanda Ashford, with Porter communications, to learn a bit more about the airline. They explained to me that Porter is looking to add some paid options in their lounge, including ready-to-go food and alcohol.
Porter Airlines offers a comfortable cabin that feels high-end, especially for a regional prop airliner.
Each flight is clearly announced and people line up at one of three doors before heading to one of ten gates. With most regional prop aircraft, you have to (well “get to” for airline fans) go on the tarmac to board. This can be okay some times of the year, but winter in Toronto has a way of getting a bit cold. So, the airline helped to design a customized boot to allow an inside hallway to connect to the aircraft, keeping passengers out of the elements.
Porter has arranged their Q400s with a 34″ seat pitch with 70 seats vs the typical 78 seat set up. All the seats are leather and the interior uses lighter color tones. It felt more like someone’s personal aircraft than an airliner. On both my flights I had a seat mate, which didn’t give me too much room side-to-side — although I am a bit bigger of a guy. I was sitting in the aisle going to Montreal and I would really have to bring my shoulder in from being hit by people passing in the aisle.
Yea, this might have been a 11:30am flight (8:30am Seattle time), but I had to test out the free wine for my story.
Just because the flight was only an hour doesn’t mean that passengers don’t get full service. A bit after take off the flight attendants started down the aisle giving out meal boxes and drinks. On the way to Montreal I had a chicken sandwich with pasta and on the way back was a chicken wrap with veggies. Now, these are not full meal portions, but way more than you would expect in economy on almost any other domestic airline. Not to mention you also get free beer or wine — in a real glass.
The flight attendants have classic uniforms that look professional and the four I was able to interact with seemed to actually enjoy their job and positively interacted with passengers, even though they had a short time line to complete their service.
The weather in Montreal was foggy and a bit snowy, so we did not see the ground until we almost touched down. Even sitting near the rear of the plane, it is always a quick de-boarding process on the Q400.
Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ) seen from the Porter Airlines Q400.
After a few hours in Montreal, I was back at the airport ready to take another ride on Porter. The ride back was equally enjoyable. This is an airline that seems to be in at the right place at the right time, offering the right service.
They are working towards getting US Customers Pre-Clearance in Toronto, so that they can expand routes into the US that do not have customs. Porter is also planning to bring lounges to additional airports that they serve like Montreal and Newark, sometime in the future.
Previously the airline has not turned a profit and has been around 50% passenger load. Once completing the numbers for 2011, they are hoping to show a profit and occupancy loads to be around 60%, helping to fuel future growth for this unique airline.