Porter Airline puts fun back in flying
Flight attendant Stacey McDonald of Porter Airlines serves drinks during a media flight for the airline in Toronto. (QMI Agency files)
Flying isn't fun any more. Virtually all the travellers I meet share that opinion, and they're right.
They don't just mean sitting in something where the air is too dry and the seats too cramped, where free food is an exception and you're likely to be dinged for a checked bag.
Their complaint includes navigating big airports, standing in long lines for just about everything, having to put up with the occasional indignity of a security pat-down or a full-body scan, and customs and immigration agents with a permanent case of the grouches.
Having done my share of grumbling, I was pleasantly surprised to find an airport and an airline that were a pleasure to use.
The airport is Billy Bishop International, located on an island in Toronto Harbour. The airline is Porter.
My destination was Sault Ste. Marie, for a ride last summer on the newly refurbished Agawa Canyon train.
I drove to Toronto, parked at my daughter's place and had her drop me where you board the ferry. There was congestion there -- mostly from taxis -- but after that everything was quick and easy.
The ferry runs every 15 minutes. It's only 121 metres from mainland to island so most passengers don't even bother sitting down.
Once in the terminal, I looked for the usual security lineup. There wasn't one, although one of the staff told me it had been busy earlier that morning. That was another surprise; this was day one of an Air Canada strike so Porter was extra busy.
Downstairs was a departure lounge that made waiting a pleasure: free coffee, tea, juice, water and soft drinks, good-quality snacks, including nuts and three or four kinds of cookies. A pleasant and helpful attendant kept it tidy and restocked.
Some of the seating areas had privacy screens, where you could read a newspaper -- also free.
Monitors in the lounge showed my flight was running 10 minutes late, so I refilled my cup and grabbed more cookies.
Porter uses the Bombardier Q400. It's a turboprop but quieter than the Dash 8 and other turboprops I've flown. Cabin attendants offered free beverages and a box lunch. You read that correctly -- free food. In this case it was a tasty sandwich, potato salad and a tiny Swiss chocolate.
On the early-morning return flight, yogurt, a fruit bowl, juice and either Starbucks or a choice of half a dozen Tazo teas were offered.
Porter flies to more than a dozen destinations in Canada and the U.S. Everyone I've talked to who has used it says good things about it.
It's a natural for people living in or near Toronto, but what about travellers in the more distant parts of Southwestern Ontario?
Driving is one option. A Kitchener tour operator tipped me to underground parking at Pier 96 of Harbourfront Centre, not far from the airport, that charges $9 a day, a bargain for Toronto.
Taking the train is another possibility, depending on your flight times. Porter runs a free shuttle bus to the airport from the Royal York Hotel, across from Union Station.