My Canada, 76/150: Flying in style

Air travel was once the epitome of glamour. When going through some old photos of my Aunt Blanche, I found the epitome image of flying as fun: She was going somewhere on Trans-World Airlines (TWA) and each passenger had a portrait done as a souvenir.

Porter Airlines, headquartered in Toronto and serving a number of routes across Canada and south to the U.S., hasn’t quite returned us to the era of travelling in smart suits, forever captured in souvenir portraits. But it has dragged flying back into a zone of pleasantry from the outright horribleness of modern air travel.

Especially from downtown Toronto, the ick factor is reduced considerably. You fly out of Billy Bishop Airport in the city’s harbour; there’s a free shuttle bus from Union Station, or you can take a short cab ride to the airport entrance on the shore. Recommended arrival time is 30 minutes before a flight to a Canadian destination and 60 minutes for a U.S. one; at Pearson International Airport, in Mississauga west of Toronto, you’re supposed to be there three hours before a U.S. flight time.

At Billy Bishop, you take a pedestrian tunnel with moving walkways that connects to the airport island (new since 2015; before that, there was the world’s shortest ferry ride), you check in, and you hang out in a spacious lounge with a variety of chair styles, free coffee and tea, cookies, and other snacks. You can watch the harbour activity through large windows. And when your flight is called, it’s easy to board.

Everyone on a Porter flight is treated equally: you get a beverage, alcoholic or not, free in an actual glass, not throwaway plastic. The flights are not that lengthy, so you’ll get served a snack or lunch-like food portion without having to pay.

Porter is now a decade old and it launched with a full and integrated visual identity that went way beyond a logo. It hired Winkreative, an agency based in London and Zurich founded by Canadian designer Tyler Brûlé, to give Porter a distinctive look and feel. Says the Winkreative portolio: “Conceived as a return to the golden age of aviation — a modern airline with old-fashioned service and values — Porter came to us to develop its brand and tell its remarkable story. We were involved in everything from naming and identity to service design, livery, cabin interiors, advertising and in-flight publishing, all fronted by our lovable racoon mascot.”

Porter, as a business, has been controversial and plays rough in the corners, all the while smoothing out its passengers’ travel experience. Porter’s CEO, Robert Deluce, came from an aviation family: both he and his father are pilots and the family at one time owned Austin Airways and Air Ontario, which they sold 75-per-cent share to Air Canada in 1986. By the late 1990s, Deluce wanted to start a new regional airline, using turboprop planes, to connect Canadian cities. He had his eye on Toronto’s Island Airport, now called Billy Bishop Airport, owned and operated by Ports Toronto. In a series of twists and turns, some involving court battles, Deluce’s holding company bought the air terminal on Toronto Island and promptly turfed out the existing tenant: Air Canada Jazz, then Air Canada’s regional operation. By 2006, Porter Airlines was born.

By 2013, Porter wanted to expand its fleet to include jets and drew down upon its stylish pillbox-hatted head the wrath of all those in Toronto who felt the noise and additional traffic of jets would ruin the harbour and the park experience of the Toronto Islands. By 2015, the proposal was dead in the water when the federal government said it would not support the change. Porter carries on, now going to 29 destinations and extending its reach further by having flights with multiple stops.

I’ve been on one of those extended up-down-up-down Porter flights, going to Halifax via a short stop in Montreal. After a lovely vacation in Nova Scotia, we were slated to fly back to Toronto via Montreal, repeating our original flight path.

But.

Storm’s a-coming, so the song goes, and this one was “Tropical Storm Arthur”. On the morning of our flight, skies were grey but no rain yet in Halifax. We headed to the airport, which is 35 kilometres from the city, situated far beyond the urban centre to avoid the worst of the frequent coastal fogs.

One by one, flight after flight was cancelled. No planes would fly to Halifax, so no planes were there to leave. Winds picked up and the sky darkened. We were bumped from our original early morning flight to a later one. It turns out one particular plane was sitting on the tarmac and Porter wanted to get the craft out of there, if it could, to avoid whatever wind-and-horror disaster was predicted resulting from the impending storm.

76 Porter
The last plane out of Dodge (or, in this case, Halifax Airport), with the threat of Tropical Storm Arthur looming. I am the figure to the left, foreground. Photo: Chris Moorehead

We waited at one gate. Got an announcement that the plane was being moved to another gate, where there was a better chance of a successful takeoff. We walked to the new gate. Another announcement: due to the winds, there would be no terminal-to-plane jet bridge. Suit up, all, and off we went across the tarmac.

Once we were on the plane, my partner and I sat in our assigned seats in the back row. Sigh of relief! Then the Winkreative-designed attendant bent over us. Fear, my dear readers, flashes when the flight attendant says, “we need you to move to seats in the middle of the cabin to help with take-off.” So move, we did and, as a thank you, we were offered two, rather than the usual one, complimentary beverages on the flight.

As is witnessed by the fact I am writing this story, all went well. Due to the storm-changed arrangements, we did our mid-flight down-up in Ottawa, not Montreal. The day was sunny and beautiful in Toronto and, within moments of landing, we were in a cab for a short and storm-free ride home.

Main image: Winkreative.

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