Canada's Porter Airlines focuses on the details to win customers

By Michael Kaminer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; F03

As the plane's propellers whirred, the flight attendant in the pillbox hat patrolled the aisle for a final check. The Toronto skyline, seemingly close enough to touch, receded into a postcard view as we floated up into the air.

This wasn't some sepia-toned air-travel fantasy. I was on Flight 123 of Porter Airlines, an upstart Canadian carrier whose idiosyncratic style -- and aggressive expansion -- has competitors watching jealously as their own bottom lines keep shrinking.

Though mostly unknown outside Canada -- even in New York, despite its having operated daily Newark-Toronto flights since 2008 -- Porter's stateside profile is about to rise in a serious way. Over the past 15 months, 3 1/2 -year-old Porter has added Chicago and Boston to its route map, and flights to Myrtle Beach, S.C., a popular winter getaway for Canadians, began Feb. 28. The airline is now selecting a Washington area airport for its Toronto-Washington service, slated to launch this year. In Canada, the airline serves 10 destinations.

Porter has also carefully crafted a quirky personality. Its much-hyped Toronto departure lounge feels more like a hip coffee bar, with iMacs, an espresso machine, free newspapers and mod furnishings. Its fleet consists exclusively of 70-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes, quiet new-generation aircraft that cost less to operate than jets on short hauls. Everything from the napkins to the understated plane interiors to the mischievous raccoon mascot has been conceived by a single branding agency, London-based Winkreative.

But the real killer app is its home base. Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is a tiny facility on a picturesque island at the foot of downtown Toronto. Porter is, for now, the only commercial tenant. Rivals such as Air Canada, American and Continental fly in and out of sterile, gargantuan Lester B. Pearson International Airport, about 20 miles northwest of downtown. Once you navigate your way out of that terminal, highway traffic puts the city a dreary hour and $60 cab ride away.

Landing at Toronto City, by contrast, means that you're downtown after a short, friendly customs check, a 30-second ferry ride to the mainland, and a 10-minute shuttle bus to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, opposite the city's main train station. On a good day, the whole shebang takes about 20 minutes out of the gate. And seeing the CN Tower as your plane nears the runway is a thrill.

For people who live and work in the city, Toronto City has mitigated a long-standing pet peeve about the schleps to get out of town. "Pearson's great if you're traveling to Europe, but it's crazy for a short-haul flight," said Bruce Bell, a Toronto historian, author and tour guide who took his first Porter flight in December. Bell, who lives near downtown's landmark St. Lawrence Market, says he can walk to Toronto City in 20 minutes. "I don't know what other city you can do that in," he said. "And the airport doesn't feel like a bus terminal."

Toronto City "is one of the most luxurious positions in the world," agreed Tyler Brûlé, the Winkreative honcho who crafted Porter's urbane brand identity. "It's as if there was a runway that ran parallel to Battery Park City in New York."

According to Brûlé, who has been an acerbic critic of legacy airlines in his Financial Times travel column, Porter has built its business on "democracy and dignity, which have been stripped from the flying experience in North America. We have a single class of service, so why not have a lounge that's open to everybody? Why not offer good beer and wine you don't have to pay for?"

Brûlé and his crew even designed a smart, miniature in-flight magazine, Re:porter, to match the planes' diminutive proportions. And it may be a sign of how beaten-down passengers feel that even Porter's porcelain coffee mugs and glass stemware have earned plaudits. Similarly, the pillbox hats that flight attendants sport -- along with chic navy suits, pearl earrings and silk scarves in the company's signature navy, taupe and white color scheme -- have become one of Porter's most talked-about tics.

"We tried to capture how glamorous flying used to be," said designer Kim Newport-Mimran, whose of-the-moment Toronto label Pink Tartan created Porter's uniforms. "We studied photos of flight attendants from the 1950s. And we based the uniform on a little Dior dress from that period. It's so nice to get on a plane and see flight attendants who are well dressed."

If it all sounds frivolous, Porter's bottom line seems to prove otherwise. The airline has been consistently profitable, founder and chief executive Robert Deluce has said. While most airlines are atrophying, Porter is about to add 150 employees to its 850-strong payroll. Phase 1 of a $50 million terminal expansion at Toronto City opened its doors in March, with traffic expected to increase from 800,000 in 2009 to 1.3 million this year, a spokesperson said. A second phase will complete the terminal this fall. Two new planes on order for this month will expand Porter's fleet to 20 Q400s. And passenger numbers grew by more than 60 percent in 2009, according to Reuters.

"Clearly, they've found that these small details matter," said Forrester Research travel-industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. "When you pay attention to the customer, the customer responds." Harteveldt cited Braniff Airlines' complete makeover by adwoman Mary Wells in the 1960s, and the revamp United Airlines got via ad agency Leo Burnett in the 1990s, "when they overhauled everything from the airplane exteriors to sugar packets. In the past, airlines that paid attention were successful."

But business-travel guru Joe Brancatelli says that he -- and road warriors like him -- couldn't care less. "Maybe I'm jaded, but getting a cup of espresso in a lounge is not a big deal," said the editor and publisher of frequent-flier site "And nobody I know says they fly Porter because the flight attendants wear hats. You fly because the price is competitive, or it's convenient."

"Porter's advantage is that they haven't had to compete with the 800-pound gorilla," he said. "The minute Air Canada could match the convenience of Porter, Porter would lose a lot of customers."

Not so, protests Deluce. "Our service is resonating more than the proximity of our airport," he said. "We're now covering destinations where our passengers never even see Toronto City, like Ottawa-Halifax and Halifax-St. John. And we're operating with very high load factors there."

After a recent Newark-Toronto round-trip, I do wonder whether Porter can keep it all up. Traffic already seemed to be straining the Toronto City lounge. For the first time, the vaunted espresso machine kept conking out; as the line to use it grew, caffeine-deprived passengers became seriously agitated. Likewise, two of the lounge's three iMacs looked as though they'd died; tracking down a staffer to service them seemed impossible. "It'll be interesting to see if they can maintain the small-town feeling as they get bigger," said analyst Harteveldt.

But adman Brûlé isn't concerned. The airline, he said, will continue behaving much like its Mr. Porter mascot, the peripatetic raccoon that peeks out of every print ad and web campaign. "Raccoons are wily, crafty and a little mischievous," he said. "They're very much survivors."

Kaminer is a New York-based freelance writer.

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