The classic TAP logo is known as “Passarola”.

LISBON – Over the past year, TAP has mounted an aggressive charm offensive, reintroducing and upgrading service while touting Portugal as a gateway for anyone visiting Europe. TAP, a member of the Star Alliance, doubled its passengers from the U.S. in one year with an 85 percent load factor.

In 2016, TAP unveiled its stopover program that enabled passengers en route to Europe to stay up to three days in Portugal at no extra cost. The program was recently expanded to allow a five-day stopover.

Since the program was launched, some 70,000 travelers have taken advantage of it, squeezing in the sights and enjoying the warm hospitality of Lisbon and Porto as they head to their final destination. TAP operates 2,500 flights each week to 84 destinations in 34 countries.

As part of the “charm offensive,” TAP has ferried a steady stream of bloggers and journalists back and forth to Portugal to introduce them to this relatively small international carrier and to generate positive coverage of destination Portugal.

“There’s nothing wrong with conducting these trips. TAP and Portugal both stand to benefit,” said aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt. “The free Portugal stopover is an appealing and unique feature that TAP can offer. A benefit of inviting bloggers is that most are so eager to please the sponsor and be invited back that, unlike a professional journalist, they will write almost anything the sponsor wants.”

This type of trip is a long-standing sales and marketing tactic called “influence marketing” and reflects how social media has become a core component of travel marketing and communications, Harteveldt explained.

“But, the knife that’s used to butter the bread can also be used to cut off a brand’s head,” Harteveldt cautioned. “If a blogger doesn’t enjoy the trip and writes something negative, then the airline and Portugal may suffer. There’s also the risk of the blogger behaving unprofessionally, with negative PR creating a minor problem for the airline and Portugal.”

The carrier is no new kid on the block, having been in operation since 1945. It 2015 it completed the privatization process with Atlantic Gateway Group controlled by David Neeleman, a wizard of sorts when it comes to setting up successful airlines, including Canada’s WestJet, JetBlue and Brazilian carrier Azul.

TAP is determined to make its mark in the highly competitive European markets as well as gaining a foothold in international travel destinations. To do this the airlines plans to reconfigure and upgrade its fleet and introduce new levels of service and comfort.

The carrier has 53 Airbus neo aircraft on order. By 2020, TAP will have replaced or reconfigured its long-haul fleet.

This year, TAP unveiled its popular, if quirky, retrojet that harkens back to a more elegant era of air travel. The retro livery, the crew uniforms, the cabins, the service and the amenity kits –a coveted mini-gym bag that includes toiletries and pajamas– are given to all customers on the retrojet flights. It’s all designed to raise TAP’s profile and strengthen its brand as an international carrier.

TAP retrojet’s first arrival to the U.S. in Miami was greeted with a traditional water cannon salute. (Miami International Airport @iFlyMIA)

On a recent TAP A330 retrojet flight from Lisbon back to the U.S., Airways spoke to TAP director of marketing Paula Canada about the marketing path the airline hopes to chart.

Canada, who has worked for TAP the last 30 years, said the airline industry has afforded her the opportunity to connect with different cultures and people over the years.

“It’s a very charming industry,” Canada said. And she has apparently loved every minute of it.

AIRWAYS:  TAP has used its own legacy and adopted a retro jet marketing concept to promote its brand. Has there been a noticeable bump in the number of passengers over the past two years?

CANADA: We’ve only been flying the retro jet for a few months but it’s true that TAP has been breaking our traffic records. We had almost 12 million passengers in 2016 and have been improving on last year’s enplanements basically month after month this year. In 2017, we expect to break that record, boarding more than 14 million passengers.

Also, with our new route to Toronto added this year, as well as last year’s new service to JFK and Boston, we have doubled our North American service, year over year.

Were you taking a chance making ‘everything old new again’ with the retro jet concept?

I don’t believe so. TAP is one of the most beloved brands in Portugal and the old livery means a lot to people here. It’s part of our growing up. And the retro experience has been so lovingly created in every detail. It was wonderful seeing people’s faces when they boarded and saw the 70s Louis Feraud flight attendant uniforms or the beloved retro flight bags.

TAP has 53 brand new Airbus aircraft on order (A321neos and A330-900s). We’re actually the launch carrier for the new Airbus A330-900. And we’ve been retrofitting all our long-haul fleet so that, by 2020, TAP’s entire long-haul fleet will either be brand new or newly reconfigured.

It’s a really exciting time to see the airline that TAP is becoming, but also the perfect opportunity to gaze back for one last look at the past as well.

What do you see as TAP’s major competitive advantage? How do you differentiate your product from other low-cost carriers – such as EasyJet and Ryanair – in your market?

Probably our location as the most western country in Europe is our major advantage — it makes not only for an ideal international gateway, but Lisbon and Porto also provide the most beautiful and culturally exciting Stopovers you’ll ever want to experience.

With our global network, we compete with all the world’s carriers. While our fares compete every day with low-cost carriers, we look to other full-service international carriers as competitors for our product.

As a low-cost model, how do you maintain a balance with promoting a relatively high-end business class product while providing a good experience for economy passengers? Is this done primarily through unbundling fares?

That’s right. Our new branded fares mean that now travelers can buy what they want and pick the fare that makes the most sense for them. Whether you have checked luggage, or need a refundable fare, for example, unbundling has also meant we now sell each way, without all the rules that used to come with a roundtrip ticket.

The branded fares have been rolled out domestically as well as on our long-haul flights.

Are there still some untapped markets for the airline in Europe and the U.S.? Will you seek to grow by increasing the number of destinations or frequencies?

TAP currently flies to more than 50 cities in Europe. We added several more this year, in fact, so there’s still network growth for us in Europe. And the US will also see both new routes and additional frequencies.

The new A330-900s and A321neos each bring different opportunities. The A330s will open up additional major routes while the smaller A321 will make new smaller, narrower routes profitable to serve.

Also, the ability to swap the smaller A321 in for the A330 means that we can continue our peak summer daily frequencies on routes that might have ordinarily been reduced to 3 or 4 times a week in winter.

What has TAP done for tourism in Portugal? Some have compared it to the emergence of Iceland as a popular stopover for tourists en route to Europe, but then it became a point of destination. Will TAP play this kind of role in making Portugal a go-to destination?

TAP does a lot for tourism to Portugal (all our campaigns worldwide promote Portugal as a destination), and of course, Portugal’s such an amazing place, that it also does a lot for TAP in return.

Our new Stopover program would not have been nearly as successful if Lisbon and Porto didn’t have such great appeal. Portugal is the US’ go-to destination already, being named Travel + Leisure magazine’s editor’s pick for 2017.

But I do believe that TAP’s renaissance and growth this last year has played a very large role in the increase in visitor arrivals.