Stephenville group courts Porter Airlines

A group in Stephenville is banking on Facebook to lure a new airline to the local airport

by Carol Hopkins

Three different men living in two different provinces have come together to harness the power of social media to bring an airline to Stephenville.

Tony Young owns a travel agency in Manitoba. Dean Simon is self-employed as a running coach in Stephenville.  Wade Gabriel, who also lives in Manitoba, is a retired police officer.  All three men are natives of Stephenville.

Together, the trio decided to use Facebook to see if they could raise public support to help convince Porter Airlines to make Stephenville Airport their base of operations for the west coast of Newfoundland.

Just over a week ago, the group created a Facebook page they called Land Porter Airlines in Stephenville, YJT Group.  At the time of this writing, the group has 10,204 members.

Dean Simon, seen outside the Stephenville Airport, hopes to see Porter Airlines set up. - Carol Hopkins photo

“We are asking people to post a comment telling Porter why you would want to fly out of Stephenville on Porter Airlines,” Young said.

The group has grown so quickly that the three administrators were soon overwhelmed.

“We had 1,500 members join in one day but even with three of us we couldn’t monitor it. It was just growing way too fast so we brought other people on – now there are 15 of us,” said Young.

The group members take turns monitoring the page, which includes a mini-questionnaire asking people to indicate the destinations they would like to travel to and also where they may be flying from.

Stephenville Airport has been struggling for some time. In 2005, the corporation entered into bankruptcy protection. In 2009, the town of Stephenville invested $200,000 into the airport to help with winter supplies such as sand,  to pay staff wages, and to help repair the hillside lights necessary for landing aircraft.

“There used to be a marathon here in Stephenville but in order to have a large-scale sporting event you need to be able to fly people into your town. They’re not going to travel over a long distance to get to you. That is just one thing out of a multitude of things that the airport would open up,” said Simon.

Young said that although there is an alternative airport in Deer Lake, many people choose not to travel in winter due to the long drive and unpredictable weather conditions, according to comments on the Facebook page.

He said that all indications point to high interest in Porter Airlines and a likely change in the travelling public’s travel habits if the airline chooses to make Stephenville one of its destinations.

“It would create more travellers: the grandmother who wants to have Christmas with her grandchildren and those grandchildren would also fly to visit relatives in Newfoundland. The western region would benefit, and the people of the province would benefit,” Young said.

Tony Young, a travel agent, is a member of the trio behind the Land Porter Airlines YJT Facebook group. Photo courtesy of Tony Young

On Monday, The Independent reported that  Porter Airlines CEO  Robert Dulce is poised to make an announcement. According to the report, he told the St. John’s Board of Trade that the airline is “looking at other locations in the province.”

It remains to be seen what that announcement will be, but the founders of the Land Porter Airlines group are hopeful it will mean good news for Stephenville.

Simon said that although the Facebook campaign organizers decided to focus on Porter first, they are prepared to soldier on if things do not work out.

“What we’re doing right now can in no way be thought of as a waste of time because the numbers that we’re going to generate will be applicable to any carrier that wants to look at Stephenville,” Simon said.

Many corporations use Facebook and other social media for market research, and numbers play a big part in their sales strategies.

Only time will tell whether the numbers generated in this instance will make a difference in landing an airline in Stephenville.  But the power of social media to make a difference was demonstrated last spring when nations across the middle east used Twitter, You Tube and Facebook to help organize revolutions.

More recently, social media was also used to spread the Occupy Protest movement, which is protesting the growing disparity between rich and poor. Occupy Protest is a movement that continues to grow and evolve around the world.

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