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Carrier goes retro, looks ahead

Porter Airlines features free snacks and attendants in pillbox hats; and that old-fashioned, upscale feel is drawing passengers for Logan flights

The flight attendants’ uniforms, particularly the old-fashioned pillbox hat and scarf, are the signature look of Porter Airlines. The flight attendants’ uniforms, particularly the old-fashioned pillbox hat and scarf, are the signature look of Porter Airlines. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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TORONTO - On Porter Airlines, flight attendants wear pillbox hats and serve complimentary Canadian microbrews in real glasses. They hand out free snacks, including muffins in the morning and chicken flatbread sandwiches in the afternoon.

In the airline’s lounge at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, passengers use sleek Apple computers provided by the airline in the business center, help themselves to lattes and cappuccinos in heated mugs, and sit in chairs lit by individual lamps.

At a time when many airlines are slashing offerings, Porter, which began flying out of Boston two years ago, evokes a more civilized era of air travel, when the price of a ticket included meals, luggage, and service with a smile. So far it seems to be working. Over the past year, the number of passengers on Porter’s Boston-Toronto flight has grown 40 percent; the airline added a sixth daily flight last week after American Airlines affiliate American Eagle announced it was dropping the route in November.

Porter is part of a wave of low-cost carriers, such as Southwest Airlines, that began flying out of Logan International Airport in 2009, and among a new breed of airlines, including JetBlue Airways and Virgin America, focused on giving customers a unique experience.

“These airlines, because they’re small, they have to provide a tangibly better product than their competitors,’’ said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “It’s hard to compete on price, because prices can be matched. But full service is not what you would expect from an airline.’’

Porter also has the distinction of using a fleet of turboprop planes and being based on an island, requiring its passengers to take a two-minute ferry ride across a 400-foot channel in Lake Ontario that separates the airport from downtown Toronto.

Perhaps the most noticeable part of the Porter brand would be the retro uniforms, namely the pillbox hats. Flight attendant Kirsten Tuckey wears hers slightly tilted atop her short, wispy blond hair, topping off a navy pencil skirt, light blue scarf tied to the side, wide-collared white shirt, and navy cardigan and jacket.

“I do get a lot of attention,’’ said Tuckey, 23. “It’s the hat. People don’t expect to see a young woman coming down the street with a pillbox hat attached.’’

The uniforms are more than just an attention-getting device; along with the china cups and free wine, they give the airline a sense of longevity, said Robert Deluce, chief executive, whose parents ran a hunting and fishing charter airline in northern Ontario. “It was an attempt to bring about a slightly more refined flying experience,’’ he said. “We look to be a more mature airline in many respects.’’

The five-year-old airline serves 18 cities, most of them in Canada, as well as five American destinations, including seasonal service to Burlington, Vt., being added in December. The airline plans to add Washington, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Detroit.

With just 24 planes and 1,300 employees, Porter is Canada’s third-biggest airline with scheduled service, behind Air Canada and WestJet. Air Canada, the only other airline that flies nonstop to Toronto from Boston (to Toronto Pearson International Airport), recently resumed flying out of the small island airport, 15 times a day to Montreal - the only other carrier that serves Billy Bishop.

Porter expects to serve 2 million passengers this year, but it’s still small enough that customer service representatives help out between flights, vacuuming planes and buckling seat belts.

Lydia Agnew, a 65-year-old retired elementary school principal who lives in Ontario, flew Porter for the first time last month when she went to Boston to visit her niece. “You’re treated like an adult and not like a herd of people,’’ she said, as she made herself a latte in the airline’s international lounge in Toronto.

Before Porter bought the hangars and the airport terminal, on land leased from the Toronto Port Authority, Billy Bishop airport only had a few commercial flights a day. Porter’s announcement of starting full-scale operations drew protests from community activists worried about noise and pollution. But, according to Deluce, the protesters made more noise than the low-emission Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes Porter uses, and the port authority said it gets few noise complaints.

The turboprops, however, limit Porter’s growth, analysts point out. Jets, which are faster, aren’t allowed at the airport. The time difference is minimal on shorter flights, but it adds up on trips of more than a few hours. Turboprops are also more prone to turbulence in bad weather.

The airline attempted a $120 million initial public offering last year, but postponed it when stock markets deteriorated. Porter was considering trying again this year but decided against it. In a regulatory filing, the airline reported $151 million in revenues and a $4 million loss in 2009. Deluce said the airline expects to be profitable this year.

Throughout it all, Porter has continued to think big, last year opening a $50 million terminal that’s four times larger than the previous one. The airport will also be getting amoving pedestrian walkway to transport passengers from the city to the terminal, which the Toronto Port Authority is planning to build in a tunnel under the harbor.

For the time being, Porter customers still have to wait for the ferry. But for Paul Baillie, 43, who lives closer to the main Toronto airport than to Billy Bishop, the first-class treatment is worth the inconvenience. Sipping a free coffee and eating biscotti while he waited for his flight to Newark, Baillie said, “I feel like a VIP.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.