Flair CEO Stephen Jones on Max 8 decision


Airline will add 13 Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft configured with 189 seats

Flair chief executive Stephen Jones hints at pan-Canadian ambitions for his airline with the Max

WATCH: Flair chief executive Stephen Jones speaks with Western Aviation News about the Max and plans for the future (6 minutes recorded January 27, 2021).

Flair chief executive Stephen Jones laughs when he’s asked if he isn’t just a bit nuts for taking on 13 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the midst of aviation’s worst crisis ever.

“No we’re not,” he said in an interview with Western Aviation News. “We’re ambitious. And we’re confident. And we’re able to take what we think is a really strong strategic move. There’s risk to it, there’s no doubt, but you don’t take risks you don’t win.”

The risks are undeniable.

The Max has only just returned to service in Canada and there are lingering doubts the flying public will take to the type. The Max was grounded around the world for almost two years after a pair of deadly crashes.

Jones said he’s “100%” confident in the aircraft. Flair chose the Max, he said, because crews will already be familiar with the type with little training. Plus, he said, “there’s some great, great aircraft around it at reasonable prices these days.”

They’re also available right away, because of the pandemic.

A giant leap

Flair is banking on an expansion this spring and summer even as other airlines continue to retrench and provinces erect new measures against travel. The latest restriction in Manitoba will require anyone entering the province to quarantine for 14 days on arrival. That goes into effect Friday.

As a result of ongoing COVID restrictions, Transat announced Wednesday it was suspending all international travel out of Toronto. “Continued travel restrictions and the numerous measures imposed by the federal government, including the requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test and to quarantine upon return to Canada, have had a significant impact on our bookings,” said Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana in an email. The airline will be left with only six routes out of Montreal until at least the end of April.

Flair is currently down to one aircraft flying four times a week each direction between Vancouver and Toronto, with a stop in either Calgary or Edmonton. Building to 13 aircraft means restoring a number of routes in Western Canada that Flair served in the fall. But it also means expanding east of Toronto into what Jones calls a pan-Canadian network.

“From the east coast to the west coast, we need to have all of the major markets connected,” he said. “And so we will put in place a schedule that reflects that. Obviously, it’ll need to be tempered with, you know, with ramping up post-COVID, as demand comes and restrictions ease. But we will put in place a network that Canadians can be proud of and can enjoy and, and really get to travel around their own country.”

An artist’s rendering of Flair’s new Boeing 737 Max aircraft with a new livery (supplied).

Planning on hiring

Jones said details will be released in the coming weeks. In February, Flair announced plans to expand east to Charlottetown, Saint John, and Halifax for the summer of 2020. Just weeks later, the pandemic scuttled the expansion.

The airline has issued a request for proposals for airports willing to partner with Flair.

“We’ve got great conversations going with the airports around the country,” said Jones. “I think there’ll be some real surprises in the network. As we really start to build it up and work with partners that get it, that actually get the fact that low cost is important. And you can actually win by keeping costs lower and growing your business faster.”

Flair also expects to hire new staff, in an industry that has seen nothing but cutbacks for months.

“We’ll be hiring quite a number of new staff,” said Jones. “We’ll be bringing back those that are furloughed as a first priority. And then from there, we’ll be looking to to grow. So as I said, there are, at this time, quite a number of staff that are ready and willing to come and work with us. And so we’ll be looking to hire those and grow the business.”

Opportunities in a crisis

The pandemic has opened opportunities, argues Jones, notwithstanding the collapse of demand.

“I think across the whole value chain in aviation, there’s opportunities at the moment,” he said. “Fuel prices are reasonable in a historical context. Aircraft availability and pricing is reasonable. The availability of pilots is reasonable at the moment. And so all of those elements sort of come together to say that you can go through and set your cost structure in a way that will, will enable you to be competitive for quite some time.”

Jones supports government restrictions on travel as a means of stopping the pandemic. He argues that low-cost carriers, with their lower costs, are well positioned to weather the pandemic and grow when the time comes.

“You look across the world, time after time, that ultra low cost business model wins,” he said. “And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen in Canada.”

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