Porter execs active on lobby front ahead of expansion announcement

Porter Airlines chief executive Robert Deluce unveiled a plan this week to significantly expand the carrier's service, but Toronto council will have to approve jet access to the island airport. Tibor Kolley / Canadian Press

TORONTO – In the months leading up to Wednesday’s blockbuster announcement by Porter Airline Inc. about expanding services, the company’s top executives met regularly with Toronto city councillors, according to lobby records, including a private meeting between Porter CEO Robert Deluce and councillor Doug Ford, an outspoken proponent of the plan.

Records obtained by Global News show that Deluce and Jeffrey Brown, Porter’s chief strategy and procurement officer, met with 12 councillors or their representatives on four separate occasions between Dec. 14, 2012 and Feb. 12 of this year.

On Jan. 14, Ford – the brother of Mayor Rob Ford, who has come out heavily in favour of the controversial $2.3 billion plan – met separately with Deluce, records show.

Approval from Toronto’s municipal council is critical for the airline, which is seeking to push the runway at the Toronto Island airport into the surrounding waters by hundreds of metres and amend an agreement to allow jets at Billy Bishop airport.

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The list of councillors who met with airline executives includes Gary Crawford, Vincent Crisanti, Frank Di Giorgio, Doug Holyday, Peter Milczyn, Denzil Minnan-Wong, John Parker and Kristyn Wong-Tam.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told Global News the December meeting was a tour of Porter’s facilities attended by several councillors and the airlines’s expansion plans didn’t come up in conversations.

Following Wednesday’s announcement, Councillor Ford lauded the proposal. “I think it’s great for the people of the city,” he told reporters.

Councillors Wong-Tam and Di Giorgio declined to comment. The others did not respond to a request for comment.

“They’ve already been having some discussions, obviously, with different levels within the Tripartite Agreement,” said Robert Kokonis, an analyst and principal at AirTrav Inc., an industry consultant.

Porter plans to expand services and introduce new routes across North America beginning in 2016. The carrier currently only flies to destinations within two-and-a-half hours from Toronto, in part because of the limited range of its fleet of Q400 turboprop planes.

Porter plans to purchase 12 state-of-the-art Bombardier CSeries jets (see graphic below) and has conditionally agreed to purchase up to 18 more, at a cost of more than $2 billion. The jets are capable of transcontinental flights and Porter wants to use the new fleet to open routes up to Florida, California and Western Canada.

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The plan hinges, however, on amending a 30-year-old agreement between the Toronto Port Authority, the federal government and the City of Toronto that prohibits jets on the island airport. Porter also needs approval to lengthen the runway at Billy Bishop by 168 metres at both ends to accommodate the new aircraft.

Porter said Wednesday it wants to secure a new deal with the three parties by the end of the year – and suggested the order from Bombardier is perhaps dependent upon successful negotiations.

Porter’s Deluce has said the carrier will require a decision by the end of the year.

Holyday refused to comment on whether he supports Porter’s plans, suggesting council should request a city staff report before any vote.

“I wouldn’t want to throw jets in there that are going to disrupt the whole city but maybe they won’t,” he said.

Analysts don’t yet have a clear read on how talks will go.

The port authority has said it is awaiting direction from council, which has seen councillors speak out on both sides of the plan.

Federal transportation authorities will also have to jointly approve amending the Tripartite Agreement, a deal struck in 1983 that set strict rules for Toronto’s island airport, which sits just off the downtown waterfront.

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“We expect these approvals are going to require substantial negotiation and will be highly political in nature,” Chris Murray, a stock analyst at PI Financial, said in a note to clients Thursday.

Kokonis, a longtime Canadian airline analyst, quoted a message sent to him by a senior ranking official in the industry on Thursday.

“He said, ‘Deluce must think he has serious political clout if he imagines that in two years he’ll get the runway lengthened at both ends and convince the politicians to agree’,” the analyst said.

An image provides a sense of the area that will be affected around Billy Bishop airport on Toronto Island (PI Financial):.

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