The politics at City Hall follow a familiar trajectory. Too familiar. It goes something like this: trial balloon, followed by specious public opinion survey supporting said trial balloon. And presto, a manufactured mandate from the people.
It was only a matter of time until the inevitable - and highly questionable - public opinion poll on Porter's plans to fly CS100 jets out of Billy Bishop City Centre Airport should surface. Porter pounced quickly on the results of that one showing 66 per cent support Porter's expansion plans "if [the jets] make a comparable amount of noise to the turboprops currently being flown from the Island Airport."
That's a big "if." The bigger "if"? The survey's question about support for lengthening the runway at Billy Bishop "if the area currently used by boats will not be changed."
There was another loaded question in the survey that Porter didn't highlight in its news release. That one about Porter's plans increasing competition and lowering airfares to sunny destinations. Who could argue with that?
Whether increased competition out of the Island Airport will markedly lower airfares is an open question. Can you say price fixing? The airline industry is not one in which one airline can undercut a competitor by too much if it wants to remain profitable.
Further to that, whether the feds will allow more competition of out Billy Bishop is another matter. Porter president Robert Deluce has some friends in high places on the board of the Port Authority that have helped protect the virtual monopoly he enjoys at Billy Bishop. His airline controls 172 of the 202 takeoff and landing slots at the airport. Air Canada, allowed back on the island after years of legal wrangling, owns the remaining 30. But it currently only flies to Montreal. More on the nitty-gritty of the business of flying in a sec. Back to the poll.
Let's just say the questions in that poll were sufficiently loaded to encourage a preordained result.
But a week after Deluce dropped plans to extend BBCCA's main runway to allow jets, there's a very different narrative emerging among aviation industry analysts - that it's basically a ruse concocted to attract a potential buyer among Porter's rivals.
Indeed, the chances of Deluce convincing city council to amend the tripartite agreement to allow him to extend the main runway at Billy Bishop are a longer shot than even he could have imagined. Porter seems to have underestimated council's resolve on this one. "DOA," planning chair Peter Milczyn termed Porter's plans.
More importantly, potential mayoral candidate Karen Stintz doesn't like the idea of an expanded airport presence on the lakeshore either.
Airport expansionists would like nothing more than to turn Porter's plans into an election issue in 2014. It's just the kind of issue that can be used to exploit the urban-suburban divide, although debate on a bridge to the airport didn't seem to stop David Miller back in 2003.
Red Tory Stintz's opposition undercuts all that if, as seems likely now, she decides to run for mayor. The dynamic set up in that case: Stintz and Olivia Chow against airport expansion and only the incumbent, Rob Ford, for.
But even without all the political intrigue, questions are being raised about Porter's blue skying. Even aviation analysts who argue it's good news say expansion is more out of necessity (ie: to keep Porter afloat) given Porter's murky financial picture. Other airline industry observers say flat out that expansion is a big mistake.
Porter has made its name on convenience. Porter's success is largely attributable to the fact its cornered a niche market - short haul flights as well as flying to markets no one else does.
Its competitive advantage, besides the free beer and wine on flights, is the ease of travel it sells - the fact that passengers can get to BBCCA without the muss and fuss associated with Pearson, with all its fighting of crowds on the ground and in the terminal.
Even if the feds decide not to fling the doors open to competition at Billy Bishop, jets will mean not only more destinations for travellers, but more flights and with that comes more crowds. Porter is already attempting to make room for more takeoff and landing slots at the airport by not renewing lease agreements with private plane owners and businesses renting space in its hangars at Billy Bishop. Flying refined? Not so much. The situation on the ground at the foot of Bathurst is already unbearable.
Jets will allow Porter to fly to more markets than the short haul Q400s. Florida and destinations in Western Canada have been mentioned. But jets also mean higher fuel, maintenance and operating costs. Maintenance and flight crews minding Porter's Q400 fleet can't just be redeployed to take over on the CS100s. They're entirely different planes requiring different expertise. More employees will mean more overhead.
There are some 35 more seats on the CS100 compared to the Q400, enough room to generate a little more profit. But being able to fly to other markets doesn't necessarily equal more profit. There's a basic rule of diminishing returns when it comes to the business of flying: the further planes fly, the more fuel they need. The more fuel, the fewer ticket-buying passengers planes can be loaded up with.
As a private company, not much is known about Porter's financial situation, except for the fact its passenger load numbers are some 30 per cent lower than its competitors WestJet and Air Canada, and the latter just announced $200-plus million in losses so far this year.
Porter has a few high profile investors in its stable, including OMERS, the Ontario municipal employees' pension fund. But last time Porter tried to raise money for expansion in 2010 by taking the company public and offering shares, there were no takers. It's taking the purely private route this time. And current labour issues with its pilots and ground crews is only putting more pressure on the bottom line.
The odd thing is that most Torontonians had accepted that an airport on the waterfront as a reality - as long as it didn't get too big. If a poll were commissioned to ask how Torontonians feel about Porter's current operations, most (except those living nearby) might even be willing to accept a few more Q400s flying out of the Island Airport. Indeed, largely missed in Porter's conditional purchase the CS100 jets is the fact that deal includes the purchase of six Q400s.
But Porter seems to want to fly higher. Having underestimated political opposition, the airline is trying to buy public opinion.
Besides last week's poll, there've been big ad forays in newspaper and on radio. That's the thing about doing business on the fly. Instead of spending our time city-building, we end up spending more time debating the latest cockamamie idea, whether it's big ass casinos or paving over the lake to build a bigger runway.