“I would argue the business class flyers are… climate criminals,” said the new CEO of Flair Airlines
Stephen Jones makes an environmental pitch for his airline
“I would argue the business class flyers are, you know, climate criminals.” The new chief executive of ultra low-cost carrier Flair isn’t holding back when it comes to people who fly business class. “They’re people that have got three times the emission or four times the emission of someone who flies on one of our aircraft per kilometre flown,” said Stephen Jones in an interview late last week with Western Aviation News.
Jones’ basic argument is this: typical business class seats, especially on intercontinental routes, offer lie-flat luxury that takes up a lot of space. Some offer as much as three square metres (32 square feet). A typical economy class seat takes up about one-tenth of the space. Meaning, for the same fuel, you can fly nine economy-class passengers in the same space.
“As big consumers of petrochemicals, of gasoline, [airlines] contribute to global warming,” said Jones. “And I think the industry needs to own that.”
Chasing premium flyers
While the industry as a whole has been improving over the years, airlines are large carbon emitters.
“In total, Canadian air carriers emitted 22 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, with approximately two thirds being generated from international flights,” Transport Canada said in a 2018 report. “The emissions from domestic flights represent roughly 1 percent of Canada’s total emissions.”
Until 2019, overall emissions were sill rising. More people means more flights, and 2019 was a record year.
At the same time, Transport Canada said airlines are getting more fuel efficient. They do that by buying new fuel efficient aircraft. If they hadn’t updated their fleets in recent years, the government agency estimates airlines would have put the equivalent of 1.2 million more cars on the road, just in 2018.
But there is an economic rationale to selling luxury – passengers are demanding it. At least, they were before COVID-19 upended everything.
On Wednesday, Air Canada said it was offering passengers the chance to fly like a VIP. It is deploying its all business-class Jetz aircraft on routes from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver to sun destinations. Normally, the aircraft are used on sports and corporate charters. Because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, the aircraft are available for other use.
“Air Canada is very pleased to offer its customers a unique opportunity to travel like a pro athlete or a VIP and experience our premium Jetz service,” said Mark Galardo, Vice President of Network Planning and Alliances at Air Canada. “Customers booking on a Jetz flight will enjoy such amenities as its all-Business Class seating configuration, upgraded meal service, and shorter boarding and deplaning times. These features, combined with Jetz’s other attributes, create a private-jet-like experience.”
“I think the question of sustainability is an important one,” said Jones. “It was very hot pre-COVID, just the role of airlines in climate change.”
Westjet to make ‘major announcement’ next week
Before the pandemic, Canada’s second-largest airline, Westjet, was making a big move upmarket to compete with Air Canada. In 2018, the last time Westjet made its financial results public, executives credited premium passengers with helping the airline grow.
It’s not done. WestJet’s President and CEO revealed plans for a ‘major announcement’ next week.
“Our airline has made considerable investments into our premium and loyalty strategy with the launch of our 787 Dreamliners and the refinement of our fleet,” said Ed Sims in a news release Tuesday. “As we move forward we continue to focus on the needs and expectations of frequent flyers and premium travellers as we look to strengthen our position from our home hub in Calgary.”
Chasing premium travellers is not what Jones has in mind. He’s aiming decidedly downmarket with costs and fares he hopes competitors can’t match.
“In the past, people have walked through business class on their way back to the back of the aircraft with a little bit of head down, a sense of ‘gee, I wish I was sitting there’,” he said. “I think they should also be looking at them and saying ‘you guys, do you really know how much you are emitting?’ And they can be proud of the fact that they’re flying with a low-cost carrier who’s got the lowest carbon footprint of any airline.”
Environmentally sound approaches
Though he may not consider his passengers as climate criminals, it’s not as though Flair is a model environmental performer. Of the company’s three Boeing 737-800NGs, two are 10 years old and the other was built in 2011. They’re decent aircraft, but hardly the latest technology. It’s one of the reasons Jones is banking on new aircraft to build Flair to a 50-plane fleet ‘in short order.’
“Take the emissions of a well-run ultra low-cost carrier and it will be the greenest way to fly,” he said. “And I think that will be increasingly important for our customers who are increasingly aware of the need to own your own carbon footprint. I think it’s going to be very important also for our staff. The staff that we hire want to know that they work for a company who cares about the planet. That has to be part of the story.”
Jones isn’t the first ULCC chief executive to make the environmental argument. Last year, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle showed off his company’s Green Class marketing at the International Aviation Forecast Summit.
He touted the airline’s lack of frills and tight quarters as a boon to the environment.