ANALYSIS: Could Porter CS100 plan stoke new slot debates at Billy Bishop?

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On 10 April, Porter Airlines surprised the airline industry with a conditional order for 12 firm Bombardier CS100s and 18 options. However, it quickly became clear that the deal hinges on two main conditions: securing approval from three government bodies to extend each side of the main runway at Billy Bishop Toronto City airport by 168m into the water, and winning an exemption to operate the still-in-production CS100 at an airport where jets are banned.

But one uncertain detail is how Porter will make room for the CS100s at an airport where slots are already full. Although additional slot approvals are not a request that Porter has explicitly made while laying out its plans to the necessary bodies of government, it appears that at least some new slots would have to be added for Porter to scale up jet operations as planned. That issue has proved to be contentious in the past.

Porter expects it will need at least 40 additional new slots at Billy Bishop Toronto City airport in order to carry out its proposed Bombardier CS100 operations on the island, the airline tells Flightglobal.

All 202 slots for scheduled commercial airlines at Billy Bishop are in use, the Toronto Port Authority (TPA) confirms. Porter operates 172 of these slots for Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop flying, while Air Canada uses the remaining 30 for flights to Montreal through partner Sky Regional with the same aircraft type.

The TPA says it believes the CS100 will be the only type of jet available that could meet strict noise regulations at the airport. It manages slots through processes recognised by the IATA and has not indicated there is a plan to add any more. The maximum number of slots is calculated by taking into account noise rules and the infrastructure at the airport.

Porter says it has some flexibility to better utilise its existing Q400 slots to make room for the CSeries, which could be achieved by moving morning flights with higher values to other times of the day. Because the CS100 will be flying longer routes, it will not need as many routes as the high frequency Q400s, Deluce noted in an interview with Flightglobal on 10 April.

"It's not like it's in and out with the same sort of high frequency that we employ in our short range Q400 model, so it's a different product, and a different mix," he says.

Because the airport is governed under a tripartite agreement with terms expiring in 2033, Porter must gain approval from Toronto's city council, the TPA and the Canadian federal government before the two conditions of the order can be met. A hearing has been scheduled in Toronto this week for councillors to discuss approving a study of the project within the next few months, and the TPA has said it has no position on Porter's plans until the city comes to a decision on how to move forward.

Porter's proposal to extend the runway and request access to the airport for the CS100 is a controversial issue in Toronto, even though the airline says the move will create up to 1,000 new jobs, offer more flying options for Torontonians and feature jets with a similar noise profile as the Q400. While more than 18,000 people have shown support for the plans on the carrier's website, certain councillors have expressed concern that opening the airport to jets could have negative consequences for the city's waterfront.

The awarding of slots at Billy Bishop has been a contentious issue ever since Porter began operating at the airport in 2006, and any additional openings could prompt a hard-fought battle with other airlines.

While no slots are available to grant to other operators right now, the TPA does have a plan in place to award any that may open in the future, giving priority to airlines that propose new destinations not served by the airport, such as Orlando, Florida and the Caribbean.

Porter is planning to fly the CSeries, which has a range of 2,950nm (5,458km), to new destinations like Los Angeles, Orlando, Miami, Calgary, Vancouver and Nassau, Bahamas. Many of these routes are serviced by WestJet and Air Canada at Toronto Pearson International airport already, but Porter's flights would offer a closer option for downtown Toronto residents and business travellers.

With the Q400, Porter is only flying legs up to about 800nm from Toronto, RBC Capital Markets analyst Walter Spracklin points out. Therefore, the CSeries would allow it to better leverage its hub airport that is convenient for business travellers, a move that would be more beneficial than trying to further build up focus cities in Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, which it now relies on for connecting traffic.

"There's no significant competitive advantage of Porter flying into airports like there is at Billy Bishop," says Spracklin. "You better leverage that asset by increasing the range," he adds.

The 805nm Toronto to Myrtle Beach route is the longest direct trip Porter flies from its city hub.

Maintaining control of a vast majority of the Billy Bishop slots is key for Porter to successfully expand its brand, says Rick Erickson, a Calgary-based independent aviation consultant.

"The Porter model only works on the island," says Erickson. "Anywhere else in the country they would have an exceptionally difficult time."

It remains to be seen how many slots Porter could free up with its existing allotment.

"I wonder where they're going to get the additional landing slots," he asks.

Porter is hoping that the CSeries deal would allow it to contend with the likes of Air Canada and WestJet on these routes, but both carriers are clearly thinking about how a second airport with jet service in the city would impact competition.

Following interviews with local media on the subject, Air Canada chief executive Calin Rovinescu reiterated that the airport is "not a private playground" for a sole carrier on an earnings call on 3 May.

Air Canada has a history of not seeing eye-to-eye with the TPA on slot arrangements at Billy Bishop. Air Canada gained 30 slots at the airport when an exclusivity agreement between Porter and the TPA expired in 2010, instead of 74 it had requested. Porter gained an 44 additional slots at that time. Air Canada unsuccessfully challenged Porter with a court appeal on the grounds that the TPA was showing favouritism towards its competitor. The carrier showed further disappointment when Porter secured 16 more slots in 2011 that Continental Airlines had given up a year earlier.

Calgary-based WestJet, a Boeing 737 operator, did not bid for these slots at the time and does not have a presence at Billy Bishop. However, the carrier tells Flightglobal it would be interested if Billy Bishop were opened to some types of jets. The carrier has also ordered Q400s since the last bidding opportunity, which will make their debut in the WestJet Encore livery starting in June.