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Shutting down an airline is a relatively simple process compared to the intricacies of bringing it back to life.
Behind the scenes, there’s a lot to do before Porter Airlines takes to the skies again on Sept. 8. The operator announced its return to service date in early July – and by the time the airline resumes flying, its operations will have been suspended for 18 months.
“Shutting down is quite easy. A restart is more complicated,” said Michael Deluce, Porter’s president and CEO. “It involves team member recalls, staff training, and simulator and in-flight training from a flight crew perspective.”
Prior to relaunch, Porter plans to bring back about 50 percent of its pre-pandemic team, or about 700 employees. Additional recalls will occur through September and October.
On the maintenance side, several employees stayed on throughout the pandemic to maintain Porter’s Dash 8-400 turboprop aircraft. Deluce said they were also busy with cosmetic refurbishments.
“When it was clear we had idle aircraft, we embarked on a complete retrofit of our entire fleet,” he told Skies. “We’ve completed a full replacement of all seats on all 29 aircraft, installed brand new carpet, side panels, exterior paint – the fleet looks and feels like a brand new fleet of aircraft. We’re very excited to welcome passengers back in September. I think they’ll be seeing Porter’s best product.”
Porter flights will resume in phases, with the initial Canadian destinations on Sept. 8 to include Halifax, Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, St. John’s, Thunder Bay, and Toronto. U.S. destinations will follow on Sept. 17, including Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington.
Deluce said that between Sept. 8 and 17, the airline will scale up to 14 operational aircraft. He anticipates that 19 Dash 8-400s will be flying by early October, with more added according to demand.
Before Covid-19, Porter employed about 300 pilots. The recall process has begun, and some have already completed recurrent training, both in the simulator and in the aircraft. Others will be regaining currency over the coming two months.
An evolving process
Deluce said Porter service may look a bit different on Sept. 8, depending on what government regulations are in place at the time.
“Today, there remains a mask mandate, but eventually we anticipate that being removed,” he said. “We have our Healthy Flights program that will be there permanently in relation to on-board cleanliness and the key elements for sanitization of the aircraft. Beyond that, it will depend on the course of the pandemic and what requirements are in place.”
In terms of passengers providing proof of vaccination, Deluce said that is an issue that will “evolve substantially over the next months” as jurisdictions around the world grapple with the same question.
Regardless, Porter Airlines is well positioned for a relaunch, having recently finalized a federal government loan package through the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF).
“Porter was fortunate to go into the pandemic with a very strong balance sheet,” noted Deluce. “In March 2020, we put additional capital in place. That’s allowed us to weather the 16-month process to get to where we are today.”
He said the federal government has now stepped in to support the entire Canadian aviation industry, and Porter is just one of the air carriers participating in the available loans program.
“Porter has access to up to $250 million. We don’t anticipate using anywhere near the full amount, but it does provide for a capital reserve during the recovery process and a buffer against any slower-than-expected recovery. It puts us in a great position to withstand any dynamic as we move back into active flying.”
In addition, a $20.5 million facility is dedicated to refunding passengers whose flights were cancelled during the pandemic.
Moving forward, Deluce said Porter will maintain the same route network, but he initially expects to see more leisure traffic as business travel recovers more slowly.
“For Porter, we are two-thirds domestic, one-third transborder. Domestic demand is expected to return faster than transborder or international. It will take time, and it won’t return at a 100 percent level for some time, but I think starting in the fall there will be a material increase in traffic.”
Deluce declined to comment on recent industry speculation that Porter is the unidentified buyer of 30 Embraer E195-E2 aircraft, a deal announced by the OEM on April 29.
“The speculation has been swirling around for a little bit and we have not confirmed any orders,” he said. “At this point, we have nothing more to add to it. We are entirely focused on relaunching our Q400 service at Billy Bishop, now announced for Sept. 8, and that’s our focus.”