Located “just three kilometres from downtown Toronto”, the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport sits on an island off the city’s centre; accessible by ferry or a relatively new underground walkway. And it may just be the world’s most conveniently located airport, as they go out of their way to make sure every passenger feels like a VIP. In a utopia, every airport would be like this.
First, let’s provide some context. The city’s main airport, Toronto Pearson International, is more than 20km out of town, and best accessed by the recently introduced train service called the UP Express, which takes 25 minutes from Union Station and costs about $13. Billy Bishop, on the other hand, is just a couple of minutes from Union station, and from most places in the city you’d be able to get to the airport’s mainland entry for less than $10 in an Uber.
Even for a domestic flight, Pearson is well known for massive, unmanageable queues that once saw me almost miss my flight even though I arrived 2 1/2 hours early. According to the security there, who wouldn’t let me skip to the front, it was my fault. “I’ve been here since 5am. Sir, next time get here 4 hours early”. Good times.
Needless to say, the fact that there’s an alternative airport without these queues makes me wonder why I’d ever fly out of Pearson again. But with just over twenty destinations in North America and only regularly servicing two commercial airlines (Porter, who account for almost all of the airport’s destinations and Air Canada, who only fly to Montreal from this airport), you can understand that it’s not always going to take you where you need to go. But it’s still the country’s sixth busiest airport that services the USA, and ninth overall.
I flew this month on a Porter Airlines flight from Billy Bishop to Halifax, Nova Scotia – a Canadian province that sits further east than anywhere in the Continental United States; in fact it has its very own “Atlantic” Time Zone. Arriving about 80 minutes before my flight was due to depart, and after a very short 5 minute underwater walk aided by moving walkways, I was greeted to the absence of any queues, both for the purposes of bag drop (make sure you pre-pay for baggage online to avoid extra fees at check-in), and security. In fact the lines were so short, the lovely woman who checked me in proceeded to have a lengthy, insightful conversation with me about her experiences at my destination. Her name was probably Barbara.
After security, you head downstairs and are greeted to a truly comfortable waiting lounge; with work station, tables, chairs and comfortable lounges that make it feel less like a general waiting area for an airport, and more like the Business Class lounge for a major airline. There’s even free non-alcoholic drinks like tea, coffee and soft drinks, and some snacks. Early morning as my flight was meant this was just some cereal, but not a bad service to be offering to all of your passengers. The only downside was that was that this was the *only* option when I first arrived. So if you wanted to buy a hot meal you were out of luck. But some sandwiches for purchase became available shortly before my 830am flight started boarding (which is only about 20 minutes before departure).
That said, there is currently construction at the airport and signs promising they are “cooking up more options”, with “Toronto-based chef Grant van Gameren” being brought on to create a menu for the airport’s “brand new food offerings”. So it’ll be interesting to see what comes there as they promise a “simple menu of sandwiches and healthy bowls that emphasise fresh, wholesome ingredients with a few guilty pleasures.”
Even regular flyers may not be familiar with Porter Airlines, who use Billy Bishop as their headquarters, and fly to over 20 destinations, with the number depending on the season. The airline exclusively uses Canadian-built Bombardier Dash-8 Q 400 turboprop aircraft, which seats about 90 people. These propellor aircraft have limited reach, so this does limit the destinations of the airline; and even for a destination like Halifax, which is within the airplane’s range, they first stop in Ottawa, which is about a 40 minute flight, ahead of the main, almost two hour service to Halifax after a short half an hour wait at the gate for a passenger changeover.
On board they provide complimentary drinks, including alcoholic beverages (beer and wine, virtually unheard of in domestic services), and snacks – chips, almonds or cookies. It’s a comfortable flight with the odd bump along the way, but the seat is comfortable and the service is excellent. Though I’m partial for a larger aircraft, they are without question my favourite Canadian airline to fly. But that’s not just because they bribe me with free, local ales. It’s the whole experience from one airport to another.
With free food and drinks, sitting walking distance from the centre of one of the world’s busiest and most populous cities, Billy Bishop just may be the world’s best and most convenient airport.
Photos by the author, except the header image courtesy of Porter. The author flew at his own expense.