TORONTO — On October 24, 2016, Porter Airlines celebrated its 10th birthday with media presentations and cake cutting in the stunning atrium at Billy Bishop Toronto City airport (BBTCA), Porter’s primary base located on the west end of the Toronto Islands.
Porter, Canada’s 3rd largest airline by passengers carried, isn’t well-known outside of Eastern Canada and a handful of cities in the U.S., but its ten-year history is one of the richest aviation stories for an airline of its size.
Founded by visionary leader and Canadian entrepreneur, Robert (Bob) Deluce, who remains the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Porter has overcome a series of obstacles to disrupt Canada’s short-haul and trans-border passenger market, while also empowering thousands of People and stakeholders to play key roles in this transformation effort.
Unsurprisingly, crowds of media personnel, government officials, Porter employees (both frontline and back-office) flooded the atrium for the cake-cutting, with an overflow area of employees excitedly peering over the second floor balcony onto the stage.
Billy Bishop, formerly known as Toronto City Centre airport, opened its doors in 1939. Prior to the launch of Porter’s scheduled air service in 2006, BBTCA handled approximately 25,000 passengers annually (that number has since grown to 2.5 million as a result of Porter’s success). It is located eight minutes from downtown Toronto, and promotes itself as, “the most scenic airport in the world.”
Stimulating record-breaking passenger growth at Billy Bishop is one of many feathers that Porter holds in its cap. Aside from fancy crew attires (with retro-style caps, nonetheless!) and offering complimentary on-board snacks, wine and beer, lounge access and Wi-Fi to its customers, Porter has won numerous awards from agencies such as SKYTRAX and Condé Nast Traveler.
Porter’s success stories have benefitted BBTCA and its aircraft manufacturer, Bombardier, Inc. It has helped PortsToronto (the owner and operator of Billy Bishop airport) receive several accolades from various organizations. From an aircraft perspective, Porter has helped Montreal-based Bombardier achieve success with its Dash-8 Q400 fleet program, of which Porter operates 26 regional turboprop jets (with 3 more on delivery).
A Lot to be Positive About
Geoffrey Wilson – President and CEO of PortsToronto, kicked off the celebratory remarks as Master of Ceremonies for the media gathering.
“This growth is in large part due to the vision and the commitment of an extraordinary man, Robert Deluce, and his very incredible team,” Wilson stated. “There is a lot to be positive about and a lot to celebrate.”
When Porter launched services in 2006, it focused operations primarily in Canada’s, “Eastern Triangle” between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with an initial order of 10 Dash-8 Q400s (the “Q” stands for “Quiet”). In 2010, Porter invested in the construction of a new terminal to accommodate the growth at the airport, which its parent company, Porter Aviation Holdings, Inc. sold to Nieuport Aviation Infrastructure Partners GP in January 2015.
Later that year, BBTCA constructed a 6-minute pedestrian tunnel, built 100 feet beneath the surface of Lake Ontario, linking the Island to Toronto’s downtown waterfront. Gradual improvements to the airport’s infrastructure, including an ongoing, 3-year airfield rehabilitation initiative, continues to draw more passengers to Billy Bishop and Porter Airlines.
“Our airfield has just completed the first phase of a multi-year restoration to repave the runways and build world-class noise abatement structures,” Mr. Wilson added. “The airport has grown to become the 6th largest airport servicing the United States, and the 9th overall largest airport in Canada.”
This is a far cry from an airport that was once “pressured” to close, according to Toronto City Councilor of the Don Valley East ward, Denzil Minnan-Wong. Taking the podium after Wilson, Councilor Minnan-Wong pointed to the 10th anniversary banner that was peppered with multi-colored polka dots, and jokingly remarked that they looked, “like bullet holes,” in a vest that Bob Deluce and Porter has been wearing throughout the years.
“They just bounce off you and you keep on going,” Councilor Minnan-Wong said in a tongue-in-cheek manner directed at Bob, emitting laughter from the audience. “You and your team are unstoppable; you just seem to march forward to continue to build one of the best airlines in the country.”
What was Bob Deluce’s reaction to this comment? The usual: his renowned, gigantic smile.
The travel landscape in Toronto, as well as the short-haul Canadian and trans-border U.S. market, is arguably one of the industry’s most cut-throat. Porter and Billy Bishop compete for traffic against the 800lb gorilla across town at Toronto Pearson airport, also the largest base for Canada’s national carrier, Air Canada. Billy Bishop, which is landing slot-constrained to slightly over 200 daily departures and arrivals, currently can only support regional turbo-prop jet due to its current runway length at 1216 meters.
Many attribute Bob’s determination, and ability to smile throughout obstacles, as one of the primary driver’s behind Porter’s ability to overcome insurmountable odds to build a successful airline at an airport that was practically defunct in the mid-2000s.
Travel Refined – A Great Canadian Success Story
Bob Deluce hails from an aviation family, and comes with over 30 years of experience working in the commercial airline business. His father, Stan, was a fighter during World War II as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Exposed to the “golden era” of air transport at a young age, Bob envisioned creating an airline that was centered on customer service and appreciation for employees, something that was more the exception rather than the norm around the time of Porter’s birth.
“One of the areas he does not get enough credit for is his efforts to foster the growth of women in aviation,” Wilson mentioned. “Earlier this year, Porter launched its, ‘Women Soar at Porter’ campaign, designed to promote all aspects of aviation job roles for women including pilots, maintenance engineers, leadership, ground operations and ramp attendants.”
As a result of Bob’s mission, Porter has the highest percentage of female pilots among all Canadian carriers. In addition, Porter employs approximately 1,400 individuals across its operations. Many of the original 200 employees who helped to inaugurate Porter in 2006 have remained with the company.
But Porter’s high quality value proposition transcends simply providing great service and treating employees well: it also entails leveraging under-utilized assets to appeal to a broader array of travelers in city dwellings with pent-up demand, such as the Downtown Toronto area. To date, Porter has carried over 18 million passengers since its first flight, and contributes approximately $3 million dollars to Toronto each year, with an overall annual economic impact greater than $2 billion.
Furthermore, with its soon-to-be 29th Q400 built at Bombardier’s plant in Downsview, Ontario, a view kilometers north from BBTCA, Porter is the only commercial airline in the world that is 100% Canadian- manufactured.
Kevin Smith, VP of Regional Aircraft for Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, remarked that the Q400 has played an extremely important role for the airport and the business model of Porter Airlines. With 70 seats on board in a 2 x 2 configuration, Porter passengers can expect roomy, comfortable leather seats and a high-frequency schedule from Toronto to beyond.
Mr. Smith noted that Porter’s birthday celebration, in context of the Deluce Family’s contribution to Canadian aviation, felt, “a little older than just ten years,” given that Stan Deluce, Bob’s father, provided passenger air transport dating back to the early 1950’s when he launched White River Air services to fly summer tourists to Lake Superior. Over the years, the Deluces have added numerous airlines to family interests, including Austin Airways, Air Ontario, Air Quebec, Superior Airways, Air Manitoba and Canada 3000, among others.
“When Bob approached us at Bombardier to discuss the Q400 aircraft, we knew we were dealing with a very experienced and very savvy airline man,” said Smith. “We had a mutual interest: Porter wanted to establish a regional airline based at Toronto Billy Bishop airport, the Island, and we wanted to showcase the low-noise, low-emissions Q400 model at the City Centre airport. Voila!”
“Given this vibrant history, there’s no doubt that the Deluces are Canada’s first family of the airline business,” he added.
Without question, the relationship between Porter and Bombardier, much like between Porter and Billy Bishop airport, is exceptionally close. Bombardier employees were present at the media celebration to present to Bob and Porter a banner, featuring a timeline of Porter’s history, to display in one of its hangars.
After remarks from Robert Poirer, Chair of PortsToronto, Geoff Wilson returned to the podium to introduce the Leader of the Hour: Bob Deluce.
“How do you introduce Bob Deluce?” he asked. “People who have worked with him, for him, around him, in support of him, even against him, over the years, will say that everyone knows him as, ‘Bob,’ which says about everything you need to know about this leadership style.”
Bob has been called the most successful entrepreneur in Canadian aviation industry. Extremely friendly and approachable, Bob took the podium thanking the many partners and friends who came on-site to BBTCA to celebrate ten year of Porter’s service.
“The saying, ‘time flies,’ is perhaps more important for the airline business than most,” he said. “It does feel this way in many respects, as Porter has grown and evolved during the last decade.”
He alluded to the fortune of being able to build an airline in Toronto where the aircraft manufacturer was located, “a TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) trip away,” and that this close proximity has been instrumental in building a strong working relationship between the two companies. Additionally, Porter sees itself as a marketing icon for the Q400 international sales efforts by hosting airline executives from around the world at Billy Bishop and displaying the aircraft, “at its very best in a real world operating environment.”
“It’s a proud feeling for all of us to see this ‘made in Toronto’ aircraft flying everyday with such a beautiful skyline as a backdrop,” said Bob. “This postcard picture would not be possible without Billy Bishop Toronto City airport. To me, it is the best absolute best urban airport anywhere in the world. Its location and service levels simply can’t be beat. PortsToronto made very strategic investments in this facility, and now Toronto has an elite airport that is considered one of the worlds’ best.”
Furthermore, the 18 million passenger count in its ten years of operation serves as more than just a selling point for Porter: leveraging the convenience of the airport, the two entities have been able to draw more visitors to Toronto for business and leisure purposes. Marketing and promotions have been helpful, but so have the awards that Porter and BBTCA have received.
“We’ve used Billy Bishop to serve 18 million passengers to date, using a very unofficial passenger to cookie ratio of 4 to 1,” Bob joked. “That’s also about 4.5 million complimentary shortbread cookies consumed over the ten years. Introducing competition on routes that we serve has significantly lowered airfares and created greater incentives to take a trip, schedule a meeting or base a business in Toronto and beyond.”
Before handing off the mic to Geoff to begin the official cake cutting, Bob made one final remark regarding the People at Porter who had helped his dream become reality:
“While I often get the privilege of speaking at events and accepting awards for Porter, that’s only because we have 1,400 incredible team members as part of this company,” he closed. “They are the ones that I want to personally thank and acknowledge for all of the work that they do.”
Porter has also done remarkable things for the Canadian economy, the City of Toronto, small and large businesses and other stakeholders to showcase its national impact. In many ways, Porter’s 10th birthday celebration felt more like a family reunion, but under the guises that Porter has gone above and beyond in making Canada a more civil aviation-friendly environment for thousands of people.
Continuing to cultivate those relationships, while also staying true to its core culture, will pave the way for Porter to log another decade ahead of success despite the occasional challenge.