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Porter moves into holiday package business

The airline hopes that Porter Escapes’ leisure travellers will help boost its passenger loads.

© Mark Blinch / Reuters/MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Porter Aviation Holdings Inc. will branch out into packaged vacations this spring, hoping to fill empty seats by offering regional excursions.

The Toronto-based company has registered Porter Escapes as a Canadian trademark, with the goal of marketing all-inclusive holiday packages that feature flights, hotels, car rentals, travel insurance and vacation services.

Robert Deluce, chief executive officer at the holding company, said the holiday unit will help boost the passenger loads of its affiliate, Porter Airlines Inc.

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The load factor, or the proportion of seats filled by paying customers, averaged above 80 per cent at Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. last year – much higher than Porter Airlines' 63.9 per cent.

But Mr. Deluce said Porter Airlines has a competitive advantage by flying fuel-efficient Bombardier Q400 turboprops and is able to post an operating profit without having to match the load factor at Air Canada and WestJet.

Porter Airlines, based at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, is aiming to gradually raise its average annual load factor to the high-60s or low-70s. "We don't need 75 per cent to 80 per cent load factor, and I doubt that we'll ever be in that category," Mr. Deluce said in an interview.

Porter Escapes has been set up as a wholly owned subsidiary of Porter Aviation and registered as a member of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario.

The goal will be to fly leisure travellers on short-haul vacation packages during non-peak times – avoiding morning and afternoon rush hours on weekdays.

Resort destinations to be promoted include Myrtle Beach, S.C., Mont Tremblant, Que., and Burlington in Vermont. Urban packages will be available for Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal, Boston, New York, Washington and Chicago. Toronto will also be offered as a destination for customers outside the Ontario capital.

Mr. Deluce is touting the new venture as innovative because rivals such as Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd., Air Transat and Sunwing focus on longer-haul destinations with trips that tend to last one or two weeks.

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Mr. Deluce said he's aiming to have a website for Porter Escapes up and running during the April-to-June quarter. The second phase of Porter Escapes will add options such as theatre, spa, adventure themes and sports events.

"Many of our customers are already creating their own getaways. We can soon offer them more than just flights," said Mr. Deluce, who heads the new division. "Porter Escapes will deliver significant incremental revenue. It will piggyback off the infrastructure already in place. It's a different type of product – long weekends and three or four-day stays. We can afford to offer attractive packages and fill some seats that might not otherwise go occupied."

Travel industry veteran John Kirk, a former senior vice-president at Thomas Cook Canada, will oversee the day-to-day business of Porter Escapes.

The departure point can be anywhere along Porter's network. For instance, a traveller wanting to buy an Ottawa package will be able to fly non-stop from Halifax or Moncton, or someone who lives in Timmins, Ont., could catch a plane to Toronto and connect to a flight to Boston.

Mr. Deluce said the privately owned airline will continue to offer seat sales, though it's trying to be more selective in marketing "promo code" deals that discount base fares by up to 50 per cent. Promotional sales are important to stimulate demand from new customers during slower travel periods, he said.

"Once someone flies with us, they're very likely to appreciate the qualities of our airline. Seat sales are the catalyst that entice someone to try us for the first time. Sales also lead to ridership on a more frequent basis, not only for business but for leisure," he said.

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