Another week, another conference – this time, work called me to La Belle Provence. There is no shortage of ways to get to Montreal from my home east of Toronto. It’s an easy-ish drive, train service is solid, and there are is pretty much hourly service on Air Canada’s Rapidair service between Toronto Pearson and Montreal Trudeau. But none of those, I thought, made for as interesting a flight report as the option I ended up taking.
Located, as Porter Airline’s marketing people say, “just steps from downtown,” Toronto Billy Bishop Airport is located on the waterfront, and is a favourite of business travelers. It’s an airport whose history is an interesting story of corporate intrigue, corporate bad behaviour, and lots of whining. I cannot attempt to recapture all that here, but here’s the Cole’s Notes version.
Once upton a time, Billy Bishop was a sleepy little underserved airport, much closer to the downtown core than it’s much larger suburban rival, Pearson. However, it appeared destined to remain underused for commercial aviation because local rules (and small practicalities like runway length) prevent jets from using the airport. For a long time, it was (under-)served by Air Canada on regional routes, but it was never very successful, nor very important, for AC.
And then along came Porter Airlines, which had an interesting idea – a “pretty-much low cost carrier” that boasts “luxury for the everyman” in this era of “you’ll-get-as-little-as-we-can-legally-give-you” airline services. Based entirely out of YTZ, Porter offered a “friendlier than the other guys” mentality, and included niceties like free wine and beer, free snacks on board, and a “lounge”-style terminal at Billy Bishop. To facilitate this, it actually purchased the Terminal at Billy Bishop from Toronto Ports, and renovated it into a decent-sized lounge, which was accessible to all its passengers.
Having invested a large amount of money in the terminal, and not being particularly interested in sharing its investment with its competitors, Porter kindly asked Air Canada to get the heck out of its building. Entirely predictably, Air Canada reacted badly to this, suddenly deciding that YTZ was of strategic importance and that AC being barred from the airport was a disservice to the public. For a while, AC was in fact kicked out, but soon enough, the powers that be decided that, in fact, a private airline holding a monopoly on an airport was not necessarily a good idea, and since building additional terminal space on the already-cramped territory of YTZ was out of the question, it demanded that the airport make the facilities – and a small number of landing slots – available to competitors. Air Canada took the available slots, and launched a nearly-hourly service between Toronto and Montreal, operated by Sky Regional under the Air Canada Express brand on Bombardier Q400 turboprops.
There’s much more to this story, and it the war of public opinion still wages on today, but let’s end the history lesson there, it’s enough to inform the reader of everything else we’ll cover in the rest of this flight report.
I live in the fast east suburbs of Toronto, which means that both YYZ and YTZ are equally inconvenient for me. And YYZ serves a whole lot more locations than does YTZ. For this reason, I’ve never used YTZ before, so this is a new experience for me. And although it’s just over an hour in flight time, John Candy and Steve Martin have nothing on me – it will take trains, planes, automobiles, and boats to get me from Toronto to Montreal.
I hop in the car and head off to the GO (Government of Ontario, and a clever little double entendre) Transit station nearest my house. GO is the Greater Toronto Area’s regional transit system, existing largely to bring commuters in from the near and far suburbs to the core of Toronto. There’s no point in driving downtown from the outer suburbs, unless you’re a fan of high parking prices and frustrating traffic. So I caught a 6:30 train towards Toronto’s central Union Station.
After enjoying all the happy expressions I got from fellow travelers for showing up to a packed rush hour train into the city with my luggage – hey, it’s just carry-on, folks! – I settled into a seat, and caught a few extra minutes of sleep on the way into Toronto. We were arriving into Union on the opening day for the new GO concourse at Union, but we pulled into the old concourse, so nothing new and exciting there.
I made my way out of Union, and out to Front Street, where Porter operates a bus service between Union Station and Billy Bishop. And yes, Air Canada passengers are allowed on board, if somewhat begrudgingly. Conveniently, it pulled up just as I was arriving on the scene, but even if it had not, the busses run at least once every fifteen minutes.
After the short trip through downtown, the bus pulled up in front of the mainland terminal at Billy Bishop, which is currently in the midst of construction.
Because the majority of the airport is on an island, walking to the terminal is not an option. There’s currently an underground (and underwater) tunnel being built, and I had hoped it would be open for this flight, as it’s advertised as opening “Spring 2015.” Alas, it was not to be, so it’s the world’s shortest ferry ride for me. Unfortunately, I arrived just in time to watch the ferry make its short journey away from me, so I had to line up for a bit while the ferry made its brief run to the island and back.
Soon enough, it made the short trip back, passengers were offloaded, and we were let onto the ferry for our epic 400-foot trip across Lake Ontario.
While waiting for the ferry and potentially waiting for the bus to get to said ferry can eliminate some of the time advantage to using the smaller YTZ over Pearson, particularly for Nexus users or passengers with priority check-in and security access, there’s no doubt this is an easier process than Pearson for the average passenger mostly looking to get from point A to point B. And, you get a pretty nice view of the skyline to boot.
After the long ferry ride, we pull into the main terminal at Billy Bishop. Despite it’s small size, YTZ is the ninth-busiest airport in Canada by passengers, and 14th by aircraft movement. This speaks much more to the number of urban centres in Canada than it does to the size of Billy Bishop, because it’s a small airport. That, of course, has its benefits. There are just two security points, A and B, which are for domestic flights and transborder U.S. flights, respectively. At 8:00 in the morning, it was very quiet, and I was through security in a matter of about two minutes. It's interesting to note that this is one of the very few Canadian airports that has scheduled service to U.S. destinations without a U.S. Customs Pre-Clearance facility – so if you fly Porter to the U.S., you arrive like an international passenger.
This was also my first time traveling with my new tech toy, and I’m pleased to say that the Air Canada app and Passbook for Apple Watch worked just fine for getting through security and boarding the aircraft.
The lounge, accessible to all YTZ passengers, is a nice touch. It’s not on par with, say, a Maple Leaf Lounge, but it’s approaching U.S. domestic lounge quality, and it’s great by the standards of the average airport arrival gates. There’s plenty of comfortable seating, some light snacks, cold drinks, and plenty of caffeine options, both regular coffee and espresso/cappuccino, and the WiFi is free, open, and fast. This would definitely be a treat for the non-frequent flier who hasn’t been spoiled by access to airline lounges as part of their regular travel experience. My only criticism is a lack of power outlets aside from the small business centre, but that’s not too much a concern given that flights out of Billy Bishop are, at most, a couple of hours long.
I grab a small snack, and settle into my seat to start writing this flight report. It’s not exactly a full breakfast, but for an “open to everyone” lounge, I think it’s quite adequate.
The airport setup, with access to gates from a hallway that rings the outwards side of the terminal, limits planespotting options. But that’s okay, because this is far from a spotter’s haven. Oh look, it’s a Porter Q400!
Oh look, it’s another Porter Q400!
You get the picture.
Air Canada has exactly one gate, Gate 1, devoted to its service to and from Montreal. Everything else is all Porter all the time, and all gates, including the Air Canada one, are host to Q400s if there’s anything there.
Priority Boarding was called as expect at 9:55, and it was through Door A for the short walk down to Gate 1, where our Sky Regional turboprop was waiting for us.
Zones 1 and 2 (both Priority Boarding Zones with AC) were called together, and though there were only about ten people in the combined priority zones, this accounted for a pretty high proportion of the plane’s passenger list. Total load was probably no more than 30. After boarding, I realized my trusty rollaboard may have squeezed into the overhead bins, but I decided not to try and just put it on the gate-check cart by the door. There’s no way AC could lose a gatechecked bag, right?
I settled into seat 2F, one of four seats marketed as Preferred Seats by AC on the Q400. This is the first row starboard, with a galley and lav in front separated by a bulkhead. Legroom is fine – in this Preferred Seat and just about every seat on the AC Q400.
2F is the only emergency exit seat on the plane, so I got my quick briefing on how to operate the door should it become necessary, including the need to deploy the “ditching dam” below the door should we become an impromptu floatplane.
Anyone care to guess what was parked next to us?
If you said “A Porter Q400,” you were right!
Boarding was quick and painless, we got our briefing, and pushed back slightly before our 10:15 departure time. There’s no such thing as a long taxi here, so after waiting for a small private plane to land ahead of us, we made the turn onto Runway 26 and were ready to go.
Takeoff runs on the Q400 are impressive to me. Not in the quiet, graceful way a 787 takeoff run is impressive, or in the “I can’t believe this thing is actually going to get off the ground” way a A380 takeoff run is impressive. But rather, in a loud, vibration-filled way that the plane accelerates like a drag racer from a red light and practically leaps into the air in no time at all.
We took off east-to-west, and climbed out over the former government-owned theme park, Ontario Place, before making a sharp left turn to get headed back towards the east. In no time, we were through the clouds and seatbelt signs were extinguished.
This being 2015, of course free drinks and food are a rarity on domestic, transborder, and even shorthaul international flights. Indeed, the only other place where Air Canada will give you anything food-wise for free in economy aside from long-haul international, is on flights like YYZ-LGA or YYZ-BOS, too short to offer buy-on-board service. And there, all you’ll get as a little pack of pretzels. But here, AC’s service out of YTZ is again influenced by its competition with Porter, the airline that boasts free snacks for all. So if you fly AC out of YTZ, you at least get a run at a snack basket that includes chips, almonds, a cookie, biscotti, and Clif bars. I opt for the latter for my breakfast treat, and accompany it with it with some orange juice and a coffee.
I understand that booze (at least wine and beer) are up for grabs on later flights. Perhaps on the way home. I’m not sure how to rate the “catering” here. On one hand, it’s not much. On the other hand, it’s much more than you could usually expect in Y on a flight within North America from most any North American airline.
I sit back and enjoy my snack, only to shortly notice that a great tragedy has unfolded under my nose as I gazed out the window.
Alas, this poor insect has made a regrettable choice, and it turns out orange juice is not a suitable home for it. There’s nothing I can do for the poor little guy, but I decide that in memoriam, I shall not drink the rest of this orange juice. The coffee and Clif bar remain insect-free, and are okay.
The flight is about what one expects from a Q400 – decently comfortable, although the cabin remains quite loud and is subject to constant but dull vibrations, even here ahead of the turboprop. Not the greatest plane to try to have a conversation with a seatmate, as attested to be the shouted conversation a couple of rows back, which I can’t help but hear. It’s nothing terribly interesting, though. It’s a cloud day down below as we fly over eastern Ontario and into Quebec.
About 11:00, a subtle drop in the nose indicates that we’re beginning our descent into Montreal, and soon enough my ears confirm that we are descending. I’ve got a bit of a head cold this morning. It’s nothing too bad, but the congestion makes pressure changes far more obvious to me than they normally would be.
We poked out of the clouds into a rainy morning over Lake Saint Louis, and soon we were on final approach into YUL.
The Q400 landed gently, and then decelerated just as rapidly as it accelerated on the runway in Toronto.
We turned onto the taxiway near the end of the runway, affording us a look at AC’s corporate headquarters, the original Air Canada Centre.
It’s a quiet morning in Montreal, and not much spotting to be had as we taxied our way to our gate. Just a couple of AC narrowbodies, an Air Transat 330, and a WestJet plane in the distance, and then a pair of Dash-8s in “before” and “after” liveries.
We taxiied to the gate, and were quickly off. Gate-checked luggage was swiftly delivered, and I was on my way – greeted by a driver immediately outside the baggage hall, and ready for my ride into Montreal.
Toronto - YTZ
Montreal - YUL
A fine performance for AC Express on this flight, and I left impressed by the Billy Bishop experience. I'd like to try it again sometime soon, and this time, sample Porter. The location is great for downtowners, and even though it doesn't save me much (or any) time in getting to the airport, it does provide something different from the familiar YYZ experience.
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