Flair Airlines

Flair bets on Western Canada

Government regulations, travel patterns push Flair into new Western markets

A Flair Boeing 737-800NG departs Vancouver International Airport February 20, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Canadian ultra low-cost carrier Flair is going all-in on Western Canada this summer, opening new routes and cities once thought to be too small to fill a 737 in a ULCC configuration.

The airline announced Thursday it would return to Winnipeg, Victoria, and Kelowna in late August and add four cities to its roster: Fort McMurray, Alberta, Prince George, British Columbia, and Regina and Saskatoon.

“It was time to start putting some more capacity into the market,” said Flair President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Scott in an interview. “We were looking at going into Atlantic Canada on this particular expansion, but they’re just not ready yet. They haven’t yet politically made a decision whether they want to open up their economy, that’s fine. So Western Canada is probably the most of all Canada right now.”

Despite opening a so-called “Atlantic bubble” allowing residents of the four Atlantic provinces to travel freely in the region, quarantines or outright bans are still in place for residents arriving from west of the Quebec-New Brunswick border. Flair cancelled a planned expansion to the region in early June.

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So, starting August 24, Western Canada it is, with a twist.

It’s an extension of a plan first implemented early in the pandemic where Flair offered service linking Toronto and Vancouver with a stop either in Calgary or Edmonton along the way.

The airline’s trunk service will continue to be between Toronto and Vancouver, and every flight will link to one of the two cities. On their own, Flair doesn’t see enough traffic to fill 189 seats, but with an interim stop on the way, the airline believes it can reach at least 75% capacity, enough in most cases, to eke out a small profit.

“Our strongest market is Toronto to Vancouver,” said Mr. Scott. “But we don’t want to dilute it too much by just putting on a bunch of non-stops. So we’ll put them one-stops throughout Western Canada.”

Mr. Scott said Flair is aiming for prices 30% less than Air Canada or Westjet, their major competitors. “So people will get a one-stop instead of a non-stop, and they seem to be ok with that. But it allows us to have two destinations to sell before we launch the airplane out of Toronto and just not one destination.”

“We’ve been marketing for Flair for the better part of two years,” said Regina International Airport President and CEO James Bogusz in an interview. Flair announced twice-weekly service to Toronto and Vancouver from the Queen City starting August 24.

The airport, he said, is generally well served by Westjet and Air Canada to their main hubs – Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. The pandemic forced both airlines to massively cut back their schedules as passengers stayed home – Regina lost 98.2% of its normal traffic in April, and July is trending better – to an 89% decline compared to last year. But the devastation wrought by COVID-19 may be opening new opportunities for airlines willing to take the risk.

“Now things have been picking up,” said Mr. Bogusz. “You look at a company like Flair, they’re trying out some new markets, obviously one of them is Regina, and they’re seeing I’m sure an opportunity to take advantage of the less competition or the not as frequent aircraft on particular routes. But they’re also, in our case, serving routes that have an established customer base.”

Mr. Bogusz indicated the airport is not subsidizing the route, though it will help with marketing the new service.

“They have come close to operating out of YXS in the past,” said Prince George Airport President and CEO Gord Duke said in an interview. His airport, which currently serves a handful of daily Dash-8 flights from Westjet and Air Canada to Vancouver in addition to local service from Central Mountain Air, will get jet service to Edmonton and Vancouver starting in September.

“We really see the opportunity for the next year to 18 months, really the opportunity is in domestic travel,” said Mr. Duke. “So we had some good discussions with them and it’s an opportunity for the people of Prince George to take advantage of a direct flight to Edmonton as well as some competition on the Vancouver route.”

Flair’s announcement will add more than 700 weekly seats to the region. While the aviation industry is still shaky, it’s a move in the right direction.

“This is another small step in those green chutes of recovery that are starting to happen,” said Mr. Duke. “Flair has shown faith in our region and I think it’s a positive sign in what has been a rough time for us.”

The expansion means Flair’s fleet of three Boeing 737-800NGs, which have been parked through most of the pandemic, will be busy. Flair has sold off four ageing Boeing 737-400 aircraft and is looking for more of the newer -800s.

“This puts those airplanes up almost to full utilization,” said Mr. Scott. “If we were to plug in the Atlantic Canada portion, we’d have them at full capacity and it would allow us to bring back 60% of our pilots and flight attendants.”

Correction: A previous edition of this story said Prince George currently had service to Calgary. It does not.

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