Billy Bishop a “problem and an opportunity” for Air Canada: CEO

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Air Canada wants more opportunities to expand at slot-controlled Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport regardless of whether the airport is opened up to jets like the Bombardier CSeries, the airline's chief executive Calin Rovinescu tells investors during a 12 February earnings call.

When asked by an analyst whether the airline would consider flying the CSeries at Billy Bishop if it chooses to order the aircraft, Rovinescu says that Air Canada sees the opening of the aircraft to jets as a “secondary” issue to gaining more service overall regardless of the aircraft type.

“We'd look to have the same capability of flying at Billy Bishop whether or not we have that fleet type,” says Rovinescu. “We think that the notion of having an airport that is exclusive to one fleet type is almost as ludicrous as having an airport that is exclusive to one carrier.”

Porter Airlines first unveiled a plan to bring the CS100 to its Billy Bishop hub in April 2013, when it announced a conditional order for up to 30 of the type. But the airline needs to gain several approvals before the plan can go through, including from Toronto's city council to allow jets at the airport and extend its runway. A long-term tripartite agreement banning jets at the airport would also have to be amended by the city of Toronto, Transport Canada and the Toronto Port Authority.

Air Canada is evaluating the CSeries as an option for replacing 25 of its 45 Embraer 190 jets, the smallest aircraft in its mainline fleet. That decision is expected to be made by mid-year. The remaining aircraft will be purchased by Boeing as a condition of Air Canada's recent order for up to 109 Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

The only commercial aircraft type that meets Billy Bishop's strict noise standards today is the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop. Bombardier has said that it expects the CSeries to have a similar noise profile after completing its flight test programme, now scheduled for the second half of 2015.

Air Canada controls 30 of the 202 commercial slots at Billy Bishop, which it utilises for Q400 flights flown by regional partner Sky Regional to Montreal. Porter operates the balance of the 172 slots for domestic and transborder flights.

Air Canada has long lobbied for more access at Billy Bishop. In 2010 it appealed against the TPA's slot allocation process, which awarded a majority of slots at the airport to Porter. The action was unsuccessful, with a Canadian federal court ruling that the airline's arguments were “without merit”.

The struggle to gain more slots at the airport is a “classic example of a troubling airport policy” in Canada, says Rovinescu.

“We're looking at Billy Bishop as both a problem and an opportunity. People want us to fly to Ottawa, people want us to fly to New York, and we say we'd fly there in a nanosecond if it was truly opened up to competition from Billy Bishop,” says Rovinescu. “So we view this current discussion of the jets - whether it's the Bombardier jet, the CSeries, or any other jet - as being kind of a secondary issue.”

The Toronto Port Authority has said that that it does not plan to increase commercial flight activity at the airport or re-allocate slots at the airport.