Johnny and I took a trip down to New Hampshire this week to visit our colleagues at Yankee Publishing. Air Canada’s high fares (and poor service) combined with a desire to have a stopover in Ontario conspired to have us take WestJet from Charlottetown to Toronto and Porter Airlines from Toronto to Boston.
This was my first experience of Porter after reading of its virtues in all manner of urban hipster publications (Wallpaper, etc.). Porter has street cred with the hipster crowd approaching that of the iPhone, and so after years of suffering the nasty neglect of Air Canada, I was looking forward to the change.
There are three approaches you can take to running an airline. You can be an elephantine incumbent, weighed down by years of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and unable, as a result, to crack a smile (Air Canada, for example). You can be a randy upstart ready to point out at every turn that you are not the elephantine incumbent, even if it means telling an endless series of Toronto Maple Leaf jokes (i.e. WestJet). Or you can just try really hard to make air travel recede into the background. This is the approach the Porter takes: rather than trying to point how how they’re a better airline than anyone else, they simply set aside the entire notion of being an airline at all.
I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t do all the things an airline needs to do, like getting you from point A to point B in a timely manner, but rather that they do all they can to make flying seamlessly integrate into real life. So rather than trying to distract you with humour and live television (WestJet), or annoy you with benign neglect and not even trying to try (Air Canada), Porter applies so much finesse to each choke point of the air travel process that you emerge neither delighted nor annoyed, but simply in another place, unfrazzled.
And Porter does have finesse.
It helps that they have Toronto City Centre Airport (née Toronto Island Airport) all to themselves: this means that they have end-to-end control over the passenger experience. So there’s no clutter: no Hudson News shops, no Duty Free shops, no CIBC credit card hucksters, no advertising, no Muzak. In other words, none of the cacophony you usually find at airports that scream “you are someplace different and stressful.”
Check-in was smooth and quick. There was no security line. There was wifi, espresso, and ginger cookies in the lounge (the lounge open to all passengers, not just the elite), the coffee cups were pre-heated by some magical machine and there were plentiful demitasse spoons on offer.
The walk to the plane was short — they pull the airplane right up to the door, which seems a miracle but makes perfect sense — and the plane itself, a Bombardier Q400, while a turbo-prop, had much less noise and vibration than the Dash 8. The crew uniforms are as if designed by Tyler Brulé himself: throwbacks to the 1940s with pillbox hats for flight attendants and jaunty caps for pilots. Fruit and muffins for breakfast. Comfortable seats. Muted but pleasant service.
We arrived at Boston Logan on time, breezed through an empty customs hall at Terminal E, and were on the bus to the rental car about 15 minutes after arriving.
The flight back was equally pleasant, although there’s no Porter Lounge at Logan so we were left to the regular terminal setting (although because it was Terminal E in the morning, where most international flights depart in the evening, there was, again, no security line and the terminal was virtually empty). In Toronto, Porter offers a free shuttle from the ferry dock to the Royal York, and we caught the wifi-equipped Airport Express bus from there to our connecting flight at Pearson without any waiting at all.
In the end, there’s no particularly remarkable feature of Porter that knocked my socks off (well, there was the heated espresso cups): the whole experience was more like getting on an elevator in Toronto and stepping off in Boston than it was like a carnival or a prison term. And that’s a pretty good way to run an airline.