MIAMI — On my way back from covering the Farnborough Air Show for Airways earlier this year, I was presented with the opportunity to fly Porter Airlines, a carrier that I had wanted to fly for some time now. In particular, I was excited for the chance at two legs on the Q400, an aircraft that I have a major soft spot for, and the opportunity to fly in and out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport.
My journey began at Montreal, where I had landed on my return journey from Farnborough. I reached the airport around 3:45 pm, and made my way over to Porter’s check in counters, which were all but deserted at that time of the afternoon. Check in was quick and painless, despite paying $25 to check my bag through to Newark. Ironically enough, and this is true of every single one of my interactions with Porter employees, I was probably treated with more humanity and kindness than I have ever been with United. And I’m a United elite…
It was now closer to 4:00 pm and that meant it was time for a long wait in the security line. In the summer, Montreal has dozens of daily long haul flights to Europe and French speaking nations in Africa, which meant that hundreds of VFR (visiting family-relatives) passengers were queuing up for their 6:00 and 7:00 pm departures. Montreal has an interesting set up for security in that there are multiple security lanes (five or six) that are all fed into by one huge line. Luckily Porter Airlines customers get expedited security access, and I was able to jump into the much shorter premium line and make it through the maze in less than 15 minutes.
Montreal Airport is an odd juxtaposition of old and new, and the gleaming and spacious international pier contrasts rather sharply with the cramped, narrow, and worn down domestic mainline pier (I did not get the chance to see the regional satellite terminal or the trans-border area).
After grabbing dinner at one of the restaurants near the international gates, I began my way to gate 5 to wait on my 6:45 pm departure. As I was walking by one of the FIDS screens, I noticed some red text next to the Porter Airlines logo. Yep…. My flight was cancelled, though because of bilingual Quebec, there was a moment or two where I hoped desperately that annule didn’t mean cancelled.
Having been on the road for nearly eighteen straight days, I was not exactly in the best of moods when it came to the flight delay. But I quickly made my way over to gate five for reassignment. I had a 30-minute connection in Toronto, but the next flight to Toronto wasn’t for another hour, which meant that I’d have to spend a night in either Montreal or Toronto. Reasoning that in non-Spanish or English speaking cities I’d probably end up playing out everyone’s stereotype of the boorish American tourist, I chose Toronto.
After waiting for an hour, I made my way to the same gate for boarding. The queue was roughly 70 passengers long, and I found myself in the middle of the line. Boarding is actually one of the bigger problems I had with the Porter Airlines experience, as being required to present passports sucked up additional time. In fairness, this appears to be a Canadian thing, as WestJet flights I was on did the same.
Flight #1 – Porter Airlines Flight 430
Montreal – Toronto (Billy Bishop)
D: 1945 A: 2055 — Seat 9A
My first impression upon boarding Porter Airlines was that someone had decided to take the worst lesson possible from automobile interiors and had chosen lightly colored leather accordingly. The seats were certainly comfortable enough, and legroom was fine, though I’ve had more on a Q400 before.
Porter Airlines is billed as a premium flight experience, but the airplane interiors are really starting to show their age. The leather seats were torn and scuffed, and the floor to the left of my window seat was downright filthy.
I also had the misfortune (some would say fortune) of being seated next to the wing and thus the propellers. Normally the aviation geek in me would have loved the opportunity to see those beautiful propellers up close (and it was something that I enjoyed on my flight the following morning), but on that particular day, the noise just added to my annoyance. Supposedly Porter has several Q400s installed with hush kits, but my luck didn’t get me on one that evening.
Beyond the seat comfort itself, my first leg also had a flight attendant who apparently graduated from the early 2000s US legacy airline school of customer service. For example, after we had climbed but before the captain had switched off the seat belt sign, my passport slipped out of my pocket and fell on the floor. I unbuckled my seat belt to try and pick up the passport, and was immediately chastised by the flight attendant walking by, who snapped at me asking why I had taken my seat belt off. Before I even got through my response of “because my passport had fallen down”, she had already said “I don’t care, you shouldn’t be taking off your seat belt.” Later, when serving snacks and drinks, she was noticeably rude to me (to the point that the family seated in front of me turned around to ask what had happened), and just generally made what had already been an intolerably long day even longer.
After an hour and fifteen minutes of flying time, we came in to land at Billy Bishop Airport, and I have to say, the spectacular visuals of downtown Toronto on approach almost made up for the flight experience… Almost…
After disembarking, I jumped out into the terminal, making my way into the international lounge so that Porter could put me up in a hotel for the night (since the cancellation that made me miss my connection was its fault). As I was walking in, Porter employees were forcibly ejecting a man who had either fallen asleep in the lounge or apparently thought he could stay in there overnight. That was (momentarily) fun.
To its credit, Porter put me up in a very nice hotel overnight, and after finally getting some sleep, I woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to go. Sort of…
Thanks to some unavoidable early morning shopping, I ended up jumping to the airport pretty late, showing up at the ferry terminal about an hour before departure. Billy Bishop has a ferry system that has departures once every fifteen minutes, and my cab was poorly timed, which meant that I waited twelve minutes in line before jumping onto a crowded ferry. That underwater tunnel can’t come fast enough in my opinion.
Luckily, the actual ride is perhaps two minutes long, and I used every second to push my way through what seemed like a hundred people, jostling folks all the way, to put myself at the front of the ramp in preparation for the several hundred meters I would have to sprint to the check in area. After putting together a run that rivaled Refrigerator Perry for ungainliness, I slid to a stop in front of the security line, only to be told by an exceedingly friendly Canadian security officer that my bag would have to be checked in as it was too big to meet carry on regulations. For perhaps the first time in my life, my heart ached for the TSA, who frankly wouldn’t care if I attempted to transport several plasma screen TVs as my carry on luggage (though one or two might get nicked).
But I trudged over to the check in counter and dutifully sat through a four-minute process that felt like fifteen. It was now T-Minus 25 minutes to departure. Luckily security was quick, and I was through with about 20 minutes to spare. It turned out out that my departure would be delayed by about 25 minutes, so all that stress and worry ended up being moot anyway.
Porter’s “departure lounges” are pretty famous, and while they are nice, I probably came in with too high of expectations. The seating is comfortable, but most US carrier lounges are nicer than what Porter offers, and frankly, the departure experience (including free drinks and “snacks”) is similar to what you get at most top-tier European and Asian airports. Perhaps I’m undervaluing the merits of free alcohol, though at 10:00 am in the morning, I certainly hope that I’m not.
I passed some time browsing the Internet on my iPad (the WiFi was fast), and then it was time for my final leg home.
Flight #2 – Porter Airlines Flight 129
Toronto (Billy Bishop) – Newark
D: 1045 A: 1215 — Seat 8D
Unlike my previous leg, this flight was at least tolerable. The aircraft’s interior wasn’t in markedly better condition and the noise from the propeller still channeled the 12th man at Century Link Field (though in a more pleasant way than the evening before). But the flight attendants were at least coolly professional, and I was able to while away a comfortable flight catching up on my paper version of The Economist (I have a digital subscription and still can’t shake the habit of reading a paper copy whenever I fly).
We landed at Newark about ten minutes behind schedule and I stayed on board until the last passenger deplaned so that I could get a nice interior shot before (formally) returning to the states myself.
Overall, my experience on Porter was certainly marred by the one flight attendant, but even taking her out of the equation, the experience was not at all great. Part of the problem was certainly that I went in with elevated expectations based on hearsay and, when Porter failed to deliver, I docked them accordingly. But even upon reflection, I would say that the Porter Airlines experience is a cut below what you get on JetBlue.