Malcolm Jolley and Jamie Drummond take flight to wine country on a new air service.
There are no signs that mark the way to the private and charter plane waiting area at Billy Bishop airport. I had to leave the main terminal and navigate around the length of the hangers in pre-dawn darkness to find a lit room with an officious looking gentlemen seated behind a desk.
Me: “Is this GTA Airlines?”
Officious looking gentlemen: “No, but you’re in the right place. Have a seat and wait for your pilot to come and get you.”
And that was the entirety of the GTA Airlines check-in protocol.
I was in that room on my way, with Jamie, to Niagara to look into the 2016 vintage at Malivoire and Stratus (Jamie’s interview with winemaker Shiraz Mottiar at Malivoire is here, and look for more content from our visit to both wineries at GFR in the weeks to come.) Jamie experienced the same non-check-in check-in, and so did our fellow passengers, a couple headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see a play and spend the night.
Our flight was scheduled for 7AM, and at about 6:50AM, two gentlemen in pilot’s uniforms came to get us. One, our captain I figured out later, was Chris Nowrouzi. Nowrouzi is GTA Airlines’ CEO and the man responsible for getting the service going.
The boarding procedure was about as basic as the check-in. We walked out the door onto the tarmac and climbed into the plane, a twin prop Piper Navajo with a ‘Panther’ conversion to 350hp turbo charged engines. The cabin was narrow and had eight seats for passengers, and two up front for the pilots. It was cozy and intimate. Pretty soon we were taxing into position on the runway and taking off due west, then banking south towards Niagara District Airport.
The flight was not long: about 15 minutes, maybe a little less. That morning it was somewhat eventful. There was a powerful and gusty head wind coming over the escarpment that shook us up a bit, causing the aircraft to fishtail and sometimes bob up and down. To say that we passengers were a little nervous would not be an overstatement. But our crew were calm and steady, and we were reassured enough to be able to joke about it as it happened.
As is often the case, GTA Airlines greatest strength is also a something of a weakness. The flight is so quick that we found ourselves off the plane and into the Niagara terminal at 7:30AM. The 7:30 arrival means the airplane is ready for its return flight at 8, which would be just in time to get someone travelling to the city to a 9AM meeting downtown. Luckily, as vineyard manager at Malivoire, Tristan Bondett is used to getting up early during harvest and kindly met Jamie and I at the airport and deposited us at a local breakfast joint where we could caffeinate, eat and plan the rest of our day.
GTA Airlines began as a charter flyer, mostly doing in the air tours of Toronto, and Niagara Falls. The scheduled service to Niagara just started this summer. Chris Nowrouzi told the BNN TV network that he launched the service in hopes of attracting business people who regularly travel between the region and Toronto. One business person who sees the value in the quick flight is Magdalena Kaiser, Director of Public Relations, Marketing and Tourism for Wine Marketing Assocation of Ontario. Kaiser arranged for Jamie and I to try out GTA Airlines, when she found out we were heading down to visit the wineries. For Kaiser, GTA Airlines presents a double win: quick access to events in Toronto for her constituent winemaking members, who regularly travel to the city, and an added travel service for wine country tourists.
Jamie and I were impressed with GTA Airlines and it’s quick service to Niagara. With the right (or wrong) combination of traffic factors, a trip to Niagara can eat up hours of the day in the car. By flying, we were able to spend two full half days with each winery, conducting interviews, tasting, and seeing what was new. GTA Airlines background as a charter flyer means it keeps it’s costs down and the ticket each way is $85. At less than $200 round trip, the flight stuck us as an affordable luxury and worth it for the extra productivity it gave us.
After our afternoon session at Stratus, instead of rushing back to our car to battle traffic on the QEW, Jamie and I had time to have a quick beer and a snack at Silversmith Brewery. It was a treat to be able to relax and have a little down time with two of our hosts, Vineyard Manager Dean Stoyka and Hospitality Director Suzanne Janke. It was enough of a treat that we cut our arrival at the airport a little close. But no worry: if you’re not at the airport a few minutes before departure, GTA Airlines will call your cell phone to see what’s up. “We’ll be there in a minute!”
After quick a goodbye to Suzanne, who drove us there, and hellos with our (new) crew, we boarded at 6PM for our return flight home. The wind had died down, and it was a much smoother ride than the morning. As a bonus, we were given the spectacle of a sunset over the escarpment as we flew across the lake. I was at home, chatting with my family, by 7.