Robert Deluce, president and CEO of Porter Airlines, doesn’t back down from a fight. If he did, Porter would never had overcome its many high profile opponents, among them Toronto mayor David Miller. In his successful run for mayor in 2003, Miller pledged to cancel plans to construct a bridge to the city’s Island Airport. “Ironically, I think we ended up in a stronger position having gone through the political obstacles,” Deluce reflects. Conflict can make a company stronger. So will experience. Deluce brings to Porter Airlines over 50 years of Deluce family experience in successfully owning, financing, restructuring, operating and managing a number of regional airlines in Canada, including White River Air Services, norOntair, Austin Airways, Air Creebec, Air Ontario, Air Manitoba, Air Alliance and Canada 3000 Airlines.

TORO recently caught up with the busy and industrious Deluce and he answered our questions.

T: My first child was born on October 23, 2006 – the same day that Porter Airlines launched. Is the analogy of raising a child – i.e. the intense joys and challenges – appropriate when talking about creating an airline from scratch?

RD: Every day certainly brings something different at an airline, much like with a child does, but I think the analogy is most appropriate when describing the progression of a company from its first tentative “baby steps” to the point where it is walking nicely with the onset of scheduled operations, and with a fair number of joys and challenges having been encountered along the way as the airline grows and matures. Early on, the airline needs very close monitoring as individuals learn the ropes but eventually everyone functions with precision and professionalism. But it does take time and patience. We’ve developed a corporate culture that focuses on giving everyone the tools to serve passengers in a simple, direct way. We’re adding employees every day and the challenge will be to maintain this culture as we grow up.

T: What is it, specifically, about the aviation business that is in your blood?

RD: I suppose this is a literal description in one sense with my parents having started White River Air Services in Northern Ontario almost 60 years ago. I got involved as a teenager, as did a number of other family members. Things evolved from there into a variety of regional airline operations.

I’m also a pilot and still have a valid commercial licence, but you’re more likely to find me flying my personal amphibious float plane these days than anything else.

T: Do you believe it’s true that entrepreneurs, like artists, are born and not made?

RD: I don’t think you can say that’s true as a rule. I was born into an entrepreneurial family and this certainly influenced me, but I did also go to school intending to be a doctor, so you never know.

Entrepreneurs do tend to have certain characteristics such as commitment, drive and passion for what they do. You may say that some people are born with this, but I think you also learn many things along the way that will focus your energy and make you truly successful. It’s important to like what you’re doing. That’s half the battle. If a job becomes simply work, then it isn’t long before one loses interest.

T: Is your mind on Porter Airlines 24/7 – or are you able to get away from it and unwind? If so, how do you do it and what is your favourite way to re-charge your batteries?

RD: Operating an airline is a 24-hour business and we have people working around the clock, so there is a part of you that is always aware of it. It’s important for everyone to take a break within your routine, though. I do my best to exercise regularly, spend time with my family and take some vacation time during the year to stay refreshed.

T: There’s an old saying, “You can’t fight city hall.” And yet Deluce and Porter Airlines not only fought city hall (i.e. – Toronto Mayor David Miller’s crusade to halt construction of a bridge to the Island Airport) but actually won, successfully adapting to ferry shuttle service while also receiving a significant out-of-court settlement from the Federal government. What were the lessons that you took away from the “bridge controversy” – and was there ever a time when you were tempted to just throw in the towel?

RD: Porter was five or six years in the making and many people probably thought we had walked away from the idea at times. There were certainly phases where we had to regroup and the business plan changed any number of times over that period. Ironically, I think we ended up in a stronger position having gone through the political obstacles. We knew there was demand for convenient, service-oriented air service at Toronto City Centre Airport and we’re being proven right with the response we’re getting from passengers.

T: As a follow up question, will there ever be a bridge built to the Toronto City Centre Airport? Is anything in progress? Or does it even matter anymore, with Porter now profitable using the ferry service?

RD: The key point has always been reliable access and the new ferry and passenger infrastructure gives us that. There have been discussions over the years about some form of access for foot traffic, so that could be a longer-term prospect.

T: On a recent flight to NY, I was struck by Porter’s unique choice of plane – the Q400 turboprop. It immediately conjured up images from the films of the 1940s (Casablanca, etc.) but the Q400 also completed the trip in about the time I’d associate with jet travel. Please speak about the thinking behind using propeller aircraft – both from an aesthetic and also a practical standpoint.

RD: The first consideration was practical in that Toronto City Centre Airport doesn’t allow jet aircraft except for medical emergencies, so the turboprop was always our focus. We considered a variety of aircraft before settling on the Q400, but we’re convinced it’s the right aircraft for a number of reasons. Bombardier manufactures them in Toronto, right in our backyard, so we’re able to support highly-skilled local jobs. The Q400 is also a turboprop that thinks it’s a jet. It’s as fast as jets on the regional routes we operate, the cabin interior is spacious and the low exterior sound is ideal for operating in an urban environment. The experience you describe is typical of many passengers who often don’t realize they’re on a turboprop unless they look out the window. It’s a fantastic flying experience.

T: As far as branding goes, the raccoon is an unusual choice for a Toronto-based airline – especially as many Torontonians are engaged in a running battle with these varmints, creatures who have evolved the specific ability/tools to break into and ransack garbage cans. Can you comment on how Mr. Porter came to be – and also the rationale behind him?

RD: There was definitely some internal debate about using a raccoon as a brand mascot. Mr. Porter was developed through Winkreative, our branding partner, which is headed by Tyler BrÛlé, the founder of Wallpaper magazine. So, there was an intention from the beginning to use Mr. Porter not only in advertising, but across the Porter brand which includes meal boxes, luggage tags and the in-flight magazine. He really appeals to us because of certain personality traits associated with raccoons, such as adaptability, creativity and persistence. It was also an opportunity to add a playful element to our otherwise corporate brand.

T: Please tell us about your plans for further expansion into the U.S. market – and how far this can go if you continue to use propeller aircraft and fly from the limited confines of the Island Airport.

RD: We identified 17 Canadian and U.S. destinations as part of the original business plan and have already added others beyond this. By the end of this year, we’ll be in one more U.S. market, with at least one other by the spring. Boston, Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia are the top priorities. Our aircraft fleet will double to 12 within a year and we’ll have taken delivery of all 20 Q400s we have on order in less than two years. This gives us the ability to fulfill the objectives set out in the original business plan.

T: What will Porter Airlines look like five years from now?

RD: At that time, we’ll be a fully mature business with over 1,000 employees. We’ll likely consider more routes that don’t use Toronto as the start or finish point. For example, maybe Halifax-Boston is something we’d look at, but five years is a long time in the airline business and we have a lot ahead of us before looking beyond the short term.

William Morassutti is the co-founder and Executive Producer of toromagazine.com. He was one of the founding members of TORO Magazine, where he served as both Editorial Director and Executive Director. Prior to joining TORO, he worked in Canadian broadcasting as a writer, producer, director, reporter and host.