Reports that Canada’s Porter Airlines today will announce a major order for Bombardier CSeries aircraft have industry analysts guessing what the purchase will mean for the company’s business plans.

Since it began operations in October 2006, Porter has grown by offering premium service to an increasing number of destinations from Toronto’s downtown airport, using 70-seat Bombardier Q400 regional turboprops.

To allow the 110- to 125-seat CS100 to operate from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport would require Porter to lobby to overturn a 1983 agreement, in force until 2033, that bans jet operations from the island runway.

Alternatively, the privately held carrier could operate the CSeries from Toronto’s main Pearson International Airport or open another hub, perhaps in Montreal, but that would mean competing directly against Air Canada and WestJet’s larger networks and higher frequencies.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Porter will order for up to 30 CS100s, finalizing a letter of intent (LOI) signed with Bombardier in December. The LOI covered 12 CS100s plus options for another 18, together worth $2.08 billion at list prices.

If, as expected, the order is announced at an event planned for today at Toronto City Airport, it will be a major departure from Porter’s current business model, says Cameron Doerksen, an analyst at Canada’s National Bank Financial.

If it is the CSeries, is there a plan to operate it from the island airport? If so, there are restrictions to be overcome,” he says. “They could try to lobby to get the rule restricting jet operations removed, but I would expect pretty fierce opposition.”

Potential Destinations

There is also the question of whether even the smaller CSeries can operate effectively from the island airport’s 4,000-ft runway. Although Bombardier says the CS100 can fly from runways as short as 4,000 ft., its range will be restricted. “Bombardier says the CS100 can fly 1,500 nm from London City Airport [which has a 4,900-ft runway],” Doerksen says. “This would probably rule out transcontinental flights, but would put cities such as Winnipeg and Halifax well within range and also enable the airline to fly to points potentially as far south as Florida.”

If the restrictions can be removed based on the aircraft’s significantly reduced noise footprint, compared with existing jets, “the CSeries [is] an ideal aircraft for Billy Bishop,” says Walter Spracklin, an analyst with Canada’s RBC Capital Markets. “However, we believe that significant rework at Billy Bishop . . . will have to be completed before the CS100 is able to fly out of the island airport,” he says.

Almost exclusive access to Toronto’s downtown airport has been the biggest reason for Porter’s growth, says Doerksen. The airline carried 2.45 million passengers last year and averaged a 64.3% load factor on its fleet of 20 Q400s.

Establishing a CSeries hub at Toronto Pearson or in Montreal would be a major shift in Porter’s business model. “They have a recognized brand that people associate with the convenience of the island airport,” says Doerksen.

Porter also offers a premium service aimed at business travelers, with more legroom and free drinks, and would face tough price competition on flights from Pearson or Montreal. “From the same airports, on the same routes, only flying an advanced aircraft like the CSeries would differentiate them from Air Canada and WestJet, which have large networks and good frequencies,” he says.