Why a Downtown Airline Isn't Taking Off

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Tannis Toohey / Toronto Star / Zuma Press

A Porter Airlines jet prepares for takeoff at Toronto's Island Airport.

The commuter gridlock caused by urban sprawl has turned downtown Toronto into a hot real estate market. Once affordable middle-class neighborhoods such as family-friendly High Park and artsy Annex are suddenly seeing homes sold for as much as $900,000, while new condos sprout almost weekly from former downtown parking lots, barely staying ahead of demand. Even Donald Trump has been drawn to the party: In the financial district, condos at Trump Toronto start at $1.6 million.

While the denizens of downtown pride themselves on commuting to work by foot, bike and mass transit, that doesn't mean they want every travel convenience — as a new airline taking off from the heart of the city has discovered. Until recently, the only airport serving Canada's largest metropolis had been Lester B. Pearson International Airport, located 20 miles from the city centre. The airport is not accessible by subway, so downtowners have to slog through traffic snarls to get there. That looked like an opportunity to aviation entrepreneur Robert Deluce, who, last October, launched Porter Airlines. Porter offered 10 round-trip flights every week day to Ottawa (and later, to Montreal), taking off and landing at idyllic Toronto Island, just a five-minute ferry ride from the city center. The island's green parks, beaches and petting zoo had long made the island a treasured summer escape for city residents — not even private cars were allowed, and the island's airport has previously banned jet-powered aircraft, except in cases of medical emergency. Hardly surprising, then, that residents, environmentalists and even the mayor of Toronto opposed the plan to have commuter jets roaring overhead.

Six months later, the protests have died down. Some downtown Torontonians have even warmed to their "local" airline, particularly time-stressed business people like lawyer Howard Greenberg, who can see the jets ascend from his office window. "With Porter, I can leave and board the aircraft within 30 minutes," he says. "If I go to Pearson, I have to allocate two hours." He likes the service, too. The terminal features complimentary cappuccinos and, for his laptop, wireless high-speed Internet access.

Despite the convenience and amenities and time savings, however, there were never more than 15 passengers on the Porter flights I've taken — the airline's Bombardier Q400 jets seat 70. I've heard similar head counts from other Porter passengers I know.

The airline's marketing hasn't done it any favors: The Porter mascot is a raccoon, public pest number one for Toronto home owners because the rampant critters nest under their homes, claw into their garbage and treat TV antenna towers as a ladder. "The airline is elegant and upscale, so why go with a Disneyesque marketing approach?" says Barry Avrich, filmmaker and president of Toronto ad agency Endeavour, who on a recent Porter round-trip was one of six passengers.

The airline also travels to — well, not exactly sexy destinations. Torontonians, after all, can be a snobby bunch when it comes to other Canadian cities. "If there is one thing I do not want as a Torontonian, it is a one-way ticket to Ottawa," wrote popular Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger. "You couldn't sell me one for 79 cents." How about to New York? Porter has applied to begin operating flights to Newark's Liberty International Airport. The U.S. Department of Transportation is reviewing the application, and will factor in objections from Air Canada, Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines, among others, which argue Porter has an unfair "monopoly" on flights from Toronto City Airport. These airlines also want to compete for the urban traveler. Torontonians may accept a downtown airport from its cherished island respite, as long as its only tenant is a struggling, regional airline. But one that services the big North American airlines will be about as welcome in the city as the creature on Porter's logo.