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politics

Desperately Seeking Jets

Porter's insidious bid for Toronto's waterfront.

Now that Rob Ford has been forced to admit what he can no longer deny, the biggest lie in Toronto comes from the friendly folk at Porter Airlines. “Sale Ends Tomorrow!” my email proclaims at regular intervals. But it never does. The end of one seat sale at Porter is inevitably the beginning of another. The sale never ends.

Could there still be any air-travelling Torontonians who rush to Porter’s wickets today out of fear prices might rise tomorrow? As the boy who cried wolf discovered, returns on such claims diminish rapidly. Somebody should tell the marketers.

Porter could get a lot more attention if it declared “Airline Ends Tomorrow”—and that would be closer to the truth. Despite the company’s considerable success at revitalizing a previously moribund island airport, raising passenger volumes from basically nothing to more than two million a year, the evidence of crisis is increasingly clear.

It would likely be clear as glass if the privately held company ever again opened its books, as it did three years ago in a quickly aborted attempt to sell shares to the public. Bay Street took one look at the numbers and said, in so many words, “Are you joking?” That was the end of Porter’s experiment in financial transparency.

Porter founder and president Robert Deluce has since claimed his company is profitable, but he said the same thing before the attempted IPO, which revealed nothing but losses.

The company’s urgent campaign to introduce currently banned jets at the little airport is a better indication of the truth. When launching the airline, Deluce was emphatic that Porter could happily operate within the strict constraints governing use of the island airport. Jets were not only unnecessary for success, he claimed at the time, they were unwanted; they were noisy and wasteful. Porter’s business plan was based squarely on the claimed advantages of Bombardier’s Toronto-made Q400 propeller planes.

Most people would say he made it work, defying the naysayers (me included) with a tremendously popular service. Everybody but Robert Deluce, it would seem, who is now desperately trying to save himself from what looks awfully like a turboprop trap. It turns out that Porter can’t live without jets after all, and—just as the naysayers said—can’t succeed without major relief from constraints designed to limit the disruption jets cause.

There was more than a hint of desperation in Porter’s campaign as it unfolded this year, accompanied by masses of misleading propaganda, high-torque polling, lobbying, and petitioning. The company even took out radio ads urging its customers to intervene with local politicians. The urgency was all out of proportion to the logistical difficulty of the proposed changes, let alone their potential impact on the city. It was hardly the sort of thing you would expect from a successful business contemplating an orderly expansion.

City staff’s latest report, which urges a properly deliberate evaluation of the jet proposal, reveals just how far Porter overreached. To take the most notorious example, Deluce repeatedly claimed Bombardier’s CS100 was “the quietest jet in production” months before the new plane’s first flight, and who knows how long before the still-unknown date when it will actually enter production. But as the aviation experts consulted by the City reported this month, nobody knows how noisy it will be. The data will not be available till May 2014 at the earliest, City staff say.

But Porter is either unwilling or unable to wait even that long. In the face of a strong recommendation for caution from professional advisers, Deluce is urging council to take a flier on the most consequential city planning decision of the new century.

The urgency seems even stranger in view of the consultant’s advice that the new plane probably will prove quiet enough to operate from the island airport once it is tested. As with every issue it identifies—noise being only one—the City report points a way forward. Although properly cautious, it is basically positive, full of compliments for the airport and its newfound vitality.

But Porter has no patience for the long game. This is not TransCanada Corp., patiently fulfilling every regulatory and political requirement in its globally controversial quest to drain the tar sands south. This is aviation, the business that investment guru Warren Buffett recently described as “a death trap for investors,” one that “has eaten up capital over the past century like almost no other business.”

An astute capitalist visiting Kitty Hawk in 1903 would have done the world a favour by shooting Orville Wright out of the sky, according to the Oracle of Omaha.

But no such hero then existed, with the result that predicting the demise of yet another start-up airline a century later is as safe as forecasting snow in December. Several have met their end at the island airport over the decades.

Unfortunately for those of us who believe the central waterfront is no place for any airport of any kind, the demise of one more carrier is unlikely to change much. The planes might get a new livery, the ads a new mascot, but the airport will remain. The reason aviation has been able to destroy so much capital, Buffett pointed out, is “because people seem to keep coming back to it and putting fresh money in.”

Experience has more or less proven that aviation on the island is unsustainable under current regulations, as set out on the municipally fabled Tripartite Agreement of 1983 [PDF]. The latest evidence is Porter’s abrupt about-face on jets, which went from unnecessary yesterday to do-or-die today. But the airport will remain alive as long as the chance remains for some future buccaneer to catch the city in one of its regular Lastman/Ford-type stupors and blow the rules wide open.

The sky will be no limit then, and every resident, amenity, and green space on the waterfront will suffer. In the meantime, there is a killer sale on seats in an empty plane to Thunder Bay. Get ‘em while you can.

John Barber is a former newspaper columnist and sixth-generation Torontonian.

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