Canada’s Porter Airlines woke from its pandemic slumber with ambitions to become a much larger airline than it was before the crisis hit. The carrier relaunched flights on Wednesday after ceasing operations in March 2020 as demand collapsed for its domestic and U.S. routes.
Porter resumed flights on three of its busiest pre-pandemic routes from Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport: Montreal, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay. Flights to Halifax, Moncton, Quebec City, and St. John’s are expected to resume in the next 10 days. U.S. routes will return on September 17, to Boston, Chicago Midway, Newark, and Washington Dulles. Initially, Porter will operate fewer frequencies — it flew up to 18 flights a day between Toronto and Montreal before the pandemic, for example — but will add flights back as demand warrants.
By October 6, Porter expects to operate 60 percent of its pre-pandemic capacity, CEO Michael Deluce told Airline Weekly. This underscores the recovery of the Canadian market, he said. Shortly after Porter suspended operations in 2020, demand collapsed to 5 percent of normal and remained there for “long stretches,” but has since recovered, according to Canadian airport data, to roughly 45 percent of its pre-pandemic level. Canada restricted travel between provinces for much of the pandemic, and had among the strictest rules for international arrivals. But domestic travel has resumed, and the air border with the U.S. has reopened. “Based on Canadian market-wide data, we are optimistic,” Deluce said.
Bookings are coming in at within four weeks of travel, which was not atypical for Porter even before the pandemic.
The competitive dynamic at Billy Bishop has not changed, despite Air Canada resuming its flights from the close-in Toronto airport on the same day as Porter. New entrant Connect, backed by Boston-based Waltzing Matilda Aviation, has said it plans to fly from Billy Bishop to the U.S. with the same type of de Havilland Dash 8-400s that Porter operates, but it has not firmed up its network. Deluce noted that of the cities he’s seen Connect publicly consider, only Boston would be a significant overlap.
Porter entered the pandemic with 1,500 employees, furloughing 90 percent of its staff as it suspended flights. It now has 900, which Deluce said can support the carrier’s plans to operate 60 percent of its pre-pandemic capacity. As demand returns and its network is restored, Porter will recall workers, and Deluce is optimistic that Porter will avoid staffing shortages that have plagued other airlines.
But Porter could soon hire even more people. The carrier has ordered up to 80 Embraer E195-E2s for its fleet — its first jet aircraft — which breaks down as 30 firm orders and purchase rights for 50 more. The new jets will start arriving in the second half of next year and enter revenue service shortly thereafter. Porter could grow to as many as 6,000 employees to support that fleet, Deluce said. The carrier is hiring pilots and upgrading existing pilots to operate the jets, he added.
The Embraers will be based at four focus cities: Toronto Pearson, Halifax, Montreal, and Ottawa. Deluce declined to identify initial routes but said Porter plans to expand into Western Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and further into the U.S. Porter now operates 29 Dash 8-400s on routes in Eastern Canada and to the eastern U.S.
The Dash 8s received a cabin refresh, including new slimline seats, lavatories, overhead bins, and paint jobs. “The temporary suspension allowed us to complete an overhaul of the interiors,” Deluce said. “It’s difficult to complete when you’re operating [the aircraft] day in and day out.”
Early in the pandemic, Porter raised CAD$135 million ($107 million) from the Export Development Bank of Canada. In June, it got CAD$270.5 million in loans through a Canadian government loan program that Air Canada, Transat, and Sunwings also availed themselves of. As demand returns, Deluce said he thinks Porter’s drawdown of that facility “will be minimized.”
Correction/Clarification: This story has been updated to say that Porter flew up to 18 daily Toronto-Montreal flights before the pandemic.