Carrier: Porter Airlines
Route: Toronto City Centre (YTZ) to Washington Dulles (IAD)
Terminal: In an age when most airlines are cutting every corner possible or having their hand out for ancillary charges for every possible add on, it’s a refreshing change to experience an airline that appears to be going a little old school and bringing back some style to air travel. My Porter experience departing Toronto began well before I got anywhere near the remarkably close and convenient Billy Bishop city centre airport.
For those who aren’t familiar with Toronto there are two main airports available, the main Pearson International Airport about 20km as the crow flies from downtown where the majority of Toronto’s flights come and go and Toronto City Centre (Billy Bishop) Airport which lies on an island a stones throw away from downtown Toronto and is home to Porter Airlines. Visiting the CN tower in Toronto gives the best view of the island, which highlights just how close this airport is to downtown.
The city is in the progress of building a tunnel to the island so you can walk from the city direct to your flight, but until that happens you can walk as far as the ferry terminal, which is just over 2km’s walk from Union Station – that is unless you’ve already mastered the whole walking on water thing, in which case you probably don’t need an airplane to get you places either. Of course if it’s a Canadian winter or you’re in a little bit of a rush you can easily catch the free Porter Airlines shuttle bus from Union Station (Corner of Front and York Streets). Just look for the bus with Porter’s racoon plastered all over it and once on board in a few minutes you’ll be connecting to a waiting ferry for one of the world’s shortest ferry rides across 121m of water to the island.
The ferry terminal is connected directly to the airport terminal that is bright, open and very modern. If you hold a Canadian or US passport you can check in online prior to arrival at the airport, but if like me you live anywhere else you’ll need to chat to one of the lovely check in staff that are eagerly awaiting your arrival. Ok so that might be an exaggeration but seriously they are super friendly (Oh I love Canadians!) and willing to have a friendly chat while checking you in. If you are lucky you’ll even get the chance to be dressed up as Barbie (or Ken), or at least get to help out one agent convince the other that they should allow them to do a quick makeover while it was a little quiet. Although online check in is probably quicker when its busy, give it a miss and go and have a chat to one of these lovely people – I’m sure they’ll help make your day just a little bit brighter.
So after checking in, I made my way to security for the US gates, which was more like I’m accustomed to in Australia – short lines (I’m not sure if 2 people even constitutes a line), efficient service that gets the job done without feeling like you’re about to visit a high security prison wing. I’m not sure that having to wait forever to clear an overcrowded and overly intrusive security checkpoint makes me any safer than going through a clean, efficient and non-intrusive checkpoint – TSA I’m looking at you right now. I digress – end TSA rant now.
Unfortunately the only thing lacking in the island airport is US pre-clearance for Customs and Immigration, which means that you have to clear that on arrival, reducing some of the time saving of departing from the city centre airport. Alas, it does mean you have more time to enjoy the departure lounge at Porter’s home base.
Departure: Porter has taken a huge leap from the normal chaotic and unpleasant departure lounges most people will be used to and decided to go for a business style lounge for all passengers. On arrival in the lounge you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d made a wrong turn and mistakenly entered an airlines premium paid lounge.
The lounge looks and feels professional from the complimentary self service snack bar serving tea coffee, non alcoholic beverages and light snacks to the business centre with about a dozen iMacs and the centrally located service desk. Seating is neatly divided into sets of four with frosted Perspex partitions providing some privacy and breaking up the open space. For more casual seating there are open chairs around the outside and cafeteria style seating around the snack bar. There is a small little store that blends nicely into the lounge selling some rather random semi travel related accessories if you feel the need to part with a few spare Canadian dollars.
Once you settle into the lounge you really have to the remind yourself that you didn’t need a separate lounge membership for this – this is just the departure lounge for all flights which really helps makes the Porter pre-flight experience hard to not impress. Once your flight is called it’s a very short walk to the waiting aircraft which is connected to the terminal via a giant air cushion which works reasonably well at keeping some of the cold at bay while you climb the few steps to boarding. On board you are handed from the lovely ground crew’s care to that of the equally friendly cabin crew.
Seat: 1A. Although Porter do provide a heck of a lot of added extra’s for free, if you want to select this seat prior to departure you’ll need to get out that credit card and pay for this baby – and I can tell you its worth it. Of course, if the flight fairies are smiling upon you nicely like they were for me, you might just get assigned this seat for free! If you’re read a few of my blogs before, do you really expect me to be sitting anywhere else?
As for the seat itself it has to be the best Dash 8 seat I’ve come across and the only one that actually reclines! The nicely padded seat is covered in smart grey leather and at 34” seat pitch in each row it’s pretty spacious for a dash 8. Of course row 1 has pretty much unlimited legroom with nothing but the door and the flight attendants seat in front of you. The front row seats have the tray table in the armrest, which is ok whereas other rows have the standard fold town tables.
The seats are arranged in the standard 2-2 configuration meaning no middle seat and generally if there isn’t a full load (like my flight) there will be no one sitting next to you anyway. The range of these bird’s also limit how long you are going to be in the seat for anyway, but for commuter travel they are unmistakably the most comfortable prop aircraft seat I’ve had the pleasure of planting my backside on.
Aircraft: Dash 8-400Q. The entire Porter fleet is based around the economical twin prop Bombardier Dash 8-400Q aircraft with its short field performance used well at Porter’s home base island airport. I know there are many people out there that will try to steer clear of anything with propellers when making bookings, but hopefully this review might help you change your perception of these birds. I’m a huge fan of turboprops for short flights for a few reasons – firstly on short distances they take about the same time as a jet does thus there is no real time saving by taking a jet. If you are looking for time savings, think about how quickly these birds turn around – generally a few minutes is all it takes to disembark – meaning no annoying waiting in the aisle for everyone else to get their luggage sorted. Overall on short hops, I find them much quicker on a “curb to curb” measurement than a jet.
Secondly – if you are carrying a little too much luggage than would normally fit in the overhead bin most airlines that operate props offer complimentary aircraft door checked baggage. This allows you to bend those carry on rules a little without having to try and squeeze that giant bag in the overhead bins, by having your bag ready for you at the aircraft door shortly after landing (and I’m talking sub 5mins shortly). Of course if you like that gigantic bag with you in the cabin at all times (firstly I don’t think we will get along) you’re not going to be a fan of the rather compact overhead bins on the Dash 8 – but do you really need all that stuff with you anyway? For those who carry normal sized bags but just don’t want to have to bother about stowing it, the door side check is really just an added convenience.
My final reason for liking the props is that they fly lower than most aircraft, meaning traffic generally seems to be less of an issue and providing you have a nice day, you get a much better view out the window at the countryside going by. They still have enough oomph to fly above most weather so you still get pretty smooth flying, without as many delays, and a better view. Of course if the weather goes bad, you run the risk of being thrown around like in washing machine, but that’s just added adrenaline at no extra cost!
IFE: I think I’ve opened this section of a previous dash 8 review by saying, “are you serious?” and as expected it’s the same on Porter – no IFE. I’ve always thought there is pretty much no point on turboprops to add the weight of a complex IFE system and I can understand why no airline in their right mind are going to go full out and kit out such a plane with such a system. Recently I’ve been thinking of it a little more and thought perhaps tablets might be a good option for Porter’s business model. If loaded with a few TV shows, maybe a bit of music it might fill the IFE gap in my reviews and if paired up with a set of lightweight noise cancelling headset provide those who are adverse to the noise of the props with one less reason to choose a jet? Just suggestions for the future, but for the time being bring your own tablet or iPod if you need to be entertained on-board.
Meal: There’s no reaching into your wallet when its time for a drink and snack on Porter with all on-board snacks and drinks, including beers and wine included in your airfare. Drink orders are taken and delivered without the trolley coming into sight and a basket with a variety of snacks is available, from which I chose a packet of vegetable crisps. Although simple snack foods, its nice to be offered something for free when flying within North America and the ability to have a free beer or wine is a nice touch – definitely aimed at the professional traveller winding down after a day or week of work.
Arrival: On decent into Dulles airport you realise how far out of Washington DC this airport is, however arriving in mid fall the colours of the fall leaves are quite pretty as you approach the airport. The long runways of IAD seem wasted as our Dash 8 gently kisses the tarmac and comes to a stop barely using a fraction of the runway available. As we taxi towards the gates I notice quite a few strange looking people movers shuttling around the airport. Unfortunately I stupidly failed to get a photo of them, but if you have ever seen the movie star ship troopers these people movers, complete with smoke stacks (for what reason I have no idea) look like they have rolled off the set and onto the airport.
It seems the APU unit on this bird decided it didn’t want to play nice when we landed and thus we waited for a few minutes at the gate with the engines spinning while they tried to locate a ground generator. The captain made an announcement updating us on what was happening however from my seat I had the chance to chat with the cabin crew who laughed saying they’d give it a minute or two then just go on emergency power instead and that the ground staff would connect it up while we disembarked. Sure enough a minute or two later the engines were shut down and the lights went off before the emergency lighting kicked in for while we disembarked.
After disembarking we boarded the awaiting shuttle for the short hop across to the international arrivals hall. In a strange twist the crew (who were operating 3 return services to IAD today) also had to clear Customs and Immigration before taking the shuttle back to the aircraft again. The crew joked that passengers often beat them back to the aircraft if a Lufthansa flight’s crew arrived before them to the crew line at immigration. So the crew operating this flight would have entered the US 3 times today!
The immigration hall seems very well organised with Canadian and US citizens being processed on one side of the hall and all other nationalities spread along a long row of immigration desks. Unfortunately post immigration the Customs line was significant and stretched the length of the baggage claim hall. Also unfortunate for me, the concept of travelling to many cities across the US and Canada over 3 weeks for a holiday seemed to baffle the immigration officials / computer systems. Thus, after an hour and a half of secondary screening (the vast majority of which was just waiting for my turn) I was admitted on the advice that next time I travel I should “just go to one place and stay there”. I’m not sure if that coincides with the message from Tourism America, however its all part of what is a generally unthankful job and the agents were polite and professional in doing their jobs so I shouldn’t complain too much.
Crew: The Porter crew, from the bus driver right the way along the service line to the cabin crew were quite simply outstanding. The crew definitely reflect the Porter experience, which their website states is “simple, hassle-free and dignified, reflecting the days when flying was fun, exciting and part of the journey…” The crew were attentive, friendly, engaging and just down to earth and genuinely interested in making the Porter experience live up to that of their website. Being able to chat to the crew is a fun part of my travel experience, and my crew member, who was looking forward to having 5 whole days on the ground at the end of the day – going on a road trip of all things for some cheap shopping with her family helped make my flight enjoyable. Being able to engage with the crew not only makes the time literally fly by but also makes the experience much more comfortable and normal.
I always say that crew make or break any experience, and in this case the Porter crew made my experience from curb to immigration.
Overall: My better half would say that I’ve just given a description of my day in real time as I often do after a day at work, but I think this airline is seriously worth going into some detail for. For someone who is often at 30odd thousand feet, it was a genuinely exciting and refreshing experience to see an airline set out some core philosophies for how their service is delivered and actually sticking to them. I can honestly say that the entire flight experience from being bussed to the airport, catching the ferry, checking in, relaxing in the lounge, boarding, the flight itself and the crazy little people mover ride at Washington was a great experience. The only disappointing part of the whole experience is that I live so far away from Porter’s route map and thus it will be a while before I get to try them out again. Well done Porter – I hope your model continues to grow well and that the “refined flying” continues to be the core of your business.