MONTREAL – Porter Airlines’ expansion plans may be headed for months of turbulence, but not the fierce opposition it faced a decade ago to change at the waterfront airport, says a political observer.
On Wednesday, the airline announced it had placed a conditional order for 12 Bombardier CS100 jets, with 18 options worth about US$2.08 billion. The aircraft will allow it to fly to Los Angeles, Florida, Calgary and the Caribbean from Toronto.
The plan immediately stirred vocal opposition from local political and community leaders.
But University of Toronto assistant professor Zack Taylor said this time around, the success of the airline may blunt some of the negative outcry to its latest growth plans.
“This airport is a lot less threatening to people than it used to be,” said Taylor, whose focus is on local politics.
He said most people have become used to Porter’s service, except perhaps island residents and those living in nearby condos.
In 2003, former Toronto mayor David Miller rode his opposition to expanding the waterfront airport to replace incumbent mayor Barbara Hall.
But Taylor called that election a “unique confluence of events” that resulted in the island airport becoming a symbol of Miller’s vision of the waterfront being the centre of a clean city.
“I think that was a very unique moment that won’t be repeated.”
He said the next municipal election won’t take place until the fall of 2014 and other issues will likely dominate.
Still, Taylor said it’s far too premature for Porter to claim victory, especially because you can’t count out “articulate, highly educated middle-class professionals” to mobilize.
Ultimately, he said it will come down to technical issues about the plane and the runway extension.
Walter Spracklin of RBC Capital Markets said the airline needs to clear several hurdles but believes it will likely be able to use the 107-seat plane at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport.
He said the aircraft’s noise emissions are significantly lower than other jets, similar to the Q400 currently in use and the proposed runway extension would still likely fit within the airport’s marine exclusion zone.
The CSeries will also have much lower takeoff and landing frequencies because of longer flight routes, said Spracklin.
“Coupled with a strong economic case… we see little reason for an economically-focused government to not approve Porter’s plan,” he wrote in a report.
Among the required approvals is a change to the tripartite agreement signed in 1983 that sets out permitted aircraft at the airport. The deal was signed by Ottawa, the city of Toronto and a predecessor of the Toronto Port Authority, whose board is appointed by all three levels of government.
Joseph D’Cruz, a professor of strategic management at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, said the outcome is uncertain because of the many players and interests.
He said the federal government will likely support Porter, especially since it has financially assisted the development of Bombardier’s new aircraft.
“There’s good reasons why the feds should support it because this aircraft, CS100, is an import development for Canada,” he said.
D’Cruz added that it could prompt support from the Toronto Port Authority by funding the runway extension.
“If that happens then I think we will have a situation where there’s momentum behind this development.”
He said Porter will succeed if it can win over “fence sitters” whose opinion can influence politicians at city hall.
Nearly half of Torontonians approve the use of jets at the airport, according to a Forum Research survey published in the Toronto Star. Forty-seven per cent of the 850 adults polled supported jets, compared to 37 per cent who opposed.
“There’s only a small role for rational analysis here. A lot of it has to do with positions of individuals which are really baked very deeply into their psyche,” said D’Cruz.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s minority Liberal government has had little to say about Porter’s plans.
Transportation Minister Glen Murray called the airport a federal area of regulation.
“We certainly value the island airport as a very important asset,” he told reporters following the Porter announcement. “This has not been an issue in which the Ontario government has been approached.”