In the past decade he has turned a idling island airport into a booming industry. Next up, Robert Deluce wants to add new jets and new destinations – if the city of Toronto will allow it. Here, the CEO of Porter Airlines shares some of his success strategies and why speed bumps are a part of business – even in the sky
The golden rule of customer service
I don’t like to get too caught up in clichés, but there are some that serve as pretty good guiding principles. It may seem corny, but I find that the golden rule – do unto others – is a good measure of how to handle any issue related to customer service. If applied with a bit of common sense, it allows for a bit of freedom for front-line team members to use their own discretion in terms of handling irregularities on a day in, day out basis. Everyone in this business has travelled, so imagining how you would feel on the receiving end is a good way to put things in perspective.
The early bird gets the time
I start my day quite early, which has always been my nature. That extra time is valuable to me, whether I’m catching up on e-mail, reading or going for a run. This morning, a thunderstorm rolled in around 3 a.m., so I lingered in bed for about 15 minutes to listen to it, but by 3:15 a.m. I was up, and by 3:30 a.m. I was at my desk for an hour and a half before a run and then breakfast around 7 a.m. That’s my way of dealing with the stress of business. It allows me to have some time to myself and the ability to prepare for whatever’s coming at me. I always want to feel as surefooted as possible. I do try to get a reasonable amount of sleep though – five or six hours. Don’t try looking for me at 10 or 11 at night – it has to be something pretty special to have me up at that hour.
Be your own secret shopper
I enjoy flying on our aircraft, walking through airports, talking with customers. Sometimes I leave my car at home and take the subway to the Royal York hotel [in downtown Toronto] so I can get on our shuttle service to Billy Bishop airport and interact with the people using our service. You learn a lot that way, and it’s things that you’ll never be able to find in a meeting room or by staring at your computer. It’s part of my philosophy of managing: I like to know what’s going on, on the ground. Having this communication with your customer is like having a whole bunch of secret shoppers out there working for you. At the same time, you have to remember that you can’t do everything by yourself. It’s so important to have a strong team in place that has clear responsibilities, rather than trying to be a one-man show.
Speed bumps are part of business
Porter has been the little guy from day one, and our competitors would have liked nothing better than to see us go away. We were never supposed to get off the ground in the first place, and certainly we weren’t supposed to be here almost nine years later. We have become pretty adept at moving around speed bumps. That’s all part of being flexible: You have a solid plan, but you need to leave room to respond to the unexpected. Our startup is a good example. There was approval to build a bridge from the mainland [to the airport on the Toronto Islands] in 2003, and then an election brought in a new administration and we had to go back to the drawing board. A lot of people thought the bridge’s demise was the end of our plan to revive the airport, but we never thought that. We’re pretty optimistic about the future [Porter is awaiting a city council decision about adding CS100 jets to its fleet]. That said, this is the airline business – just because you’ve had a few good flights in the morning, doesn’t mean you can put your feet up in a hammock in the afternoon.
On beer and brand loyalty
From the beginning, the Porter brand was something we thought about quite a lot. We do heavy advertising, we have the brand mascot, the retro uniforms. Mostly, we wanted a full-service experience for our customers. I think that’s what sets us apart. The free beer is just one way that we do this. It’s a nice surprise for first-time customers and a familiar welcome for frequent fliers. It’s very much about creating a relationship with our customer. People say that the planes feel like your own personal jet. The lounge has a certain intimacy. This is a competitive industry and so details are so important; each one is an opportunity to stand out.