The rise of Canada’s new air carriers
Two years after the global pandemic sent the airline industry into a tailspin, pent-up demand from travellers has not only spurred a recovery amid easing health restrictions but helped the low-cost segment soar.
Flair, Lynx, Porter, Canada Jetlines, Swoop and Air Canada Rouge are all attempting to carve out their own niches as low-cost—or ultra-low-cost or leisure, depending on the specifics of individual business plans—carriers.
Essentially, if you just want a seat, you pay the basic fare. Everything else—drinks, food, luggage and seat selection—is extra.
“We offer unbundled fares. The traveller can choose to purchase, or not, pretty much everything. It’s no frills,” says Julie Pondant, senior advisor of public affairs at Swoop, a four-year-old division of the WestJet family.
There’s even a way to save on luggage. If you book a suitcase at the time you buy your ticket, you’ll get the best price possible. If you wait until you arrive at the airport, it’ll cost you another $20.
“If you’re savvy or wanting to travel on a budget, there are ways you can save. The summer of 2022 really showed how Canadians are ready to travel again,” she says.
Swoop boasts 13 aircraft—10 of which are 737-800s—and flies from Winnipeg to Abbotsford, Kelowna, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Hamilton and Ottawa. It has also added a trio of sun destinations this winter—Puerto Vallarta, Orlando and Mesa, Ariz.
The newest player is Canada Jetlines, which flew its first flight on Sept. 22. Duncan Bureau, its Toronto-based chief commercial officer, says the COVID-19 pandemic presented the right conditions to get off the ground.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste. Getting an airline off the ground in Canada is a significant milestone,” he says.
“We were able to find really great talent and raise capital during the pandemic when 90 per cent of the global fleet was sitting on the ground. It gave us the opportunity to find favourable lease rates. Prior to COVID, we probably couldn’t have leased planes because the prices were too high and there wasn’t any inventory.”
He is quick to note Canada Jetlines doesn’t consider itself a low-cost carrier. Instead, he describes it as having a low-cost structure.
“We focus on people wanting to visit family and relatives, that’s a segment that tends to have a higher yield,” he says, noting the airline also works closely with the travel trade, including agents and operators.
It currently operates a pair of domestic routes, Winnipeg-Toronto and Toronto-Moncton, with more on the docket next spring when it has more aircraft.
In the meantime, it’s going to add another plane in mid-December so it can offer U.S. sun destinations. Ultimately, the plan is to have 15 Airbus A320s, a bigger, more comfortable aircraft than many other carriers offer.
“Winnipeg is a market where we see opportunity,” he says.
Merren McArthur, president and CEO of Lynx, which launched in the spring, agrees. It connects Winnipeg to Vancouver and Toronto on new Boeing 737 aircraft, which she says are 14 per cent more fuel efficient than equivalent single-aisle planes.
“Customers expect ultra-low-cost carriers to have older aircraft, poor customer service and leave them stranded. We’re doing the opposite, she says.
Lynx will also offer winter directions through its hubs in Toronto (Orlando) and Calgary (Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles).
Discount airline carriers have come and gone in the past—Canada 3000, Greyhound Air, Jetsgo and NewLeaf, to name a few—but Tyler MacAfee, vice-president of external affairs at the Winnipeg Airports Authority, is optimistic the discount segment is here to stay.
“We see a place in the market for low-cost carriers,” he says. “They provide a different level of service. Your typical business traveller might not find it a viable option but somebody going on a vacation might.”
Discount carriers not only increase the route networks across the country but they also force Air Canada and WestJet to be more competitive on busier routes, he says.
Stephen Jones, president and CEO of Flair, says the ultra-low-cost model may be relatively new to Canada but it’s well developed in most global markets.
“It has not been properly executed in Canada in the past. You need very fuel-efficient planes, which we have. You need planes of a (certain) size to be efficient with your costs. And you need to have fares that stimulate demand with a network that resonates in your market. We are very focused on leisure travel, families and students,” he says.
Flair’s business plan calls for building up its fleet to capture the existing demand with 50 Boeing 737 MAX-8 aircraft by 2025.
“We’re quite bullish on the demand. Our estimates show there is room for around 100 aircraft among the Canadian low-cost carriers,” he says.