Edmonton

The rebirth of Flair

Edmonton-based airline marks a new departure with the arrival of its first Boeing 737 Max, ready for passenger service

Flair rebirth
Flair’s first Boeing 737 Max 8 performs a flypast at Edmonton International Airport June 10, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

You can see the sense of pride in Matt Kunz’s face as he sits at the controls of his new Boeing 737 Max. It’s not often you’ve got a front-row seat to watch the rebirth of an airline. With Flair, he’s not just doing it as a pilot. As the Vice President of Business Transformations, it doesn’t get much better than this.

“Everyone’s smiling,” said Kunz as executives showered the nose of the aircraft with champagne. “People are now seeing we’re taking these steps for real. We were flying anywhere from two to five aircraft over the last couple of years. And this is the first step of a modern airplane coming really quickly. August 1st, we’ll be flying 11 aircraft.”

Kunz was at the controls as Flair staged a dramatic flypast and received a water-cannon salute Thursday at Edmonton International Airport, the airline’s home base.

It’s the first brand-new Max aircraft the airline is receiving. A second is already nearing service in Calgary, while a third Max is due for delivery in the coming days. It sports a new livery, designed in-house, incorporating the green of Flair’s most recent iteration, with more black and a splash of purple.

“You can sense the electricity,” said Flair Board Chair Bill Hardy in an interview.

There’s been a lot of ups and downs for this airline to get to this point.

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We’re competing with the big boys now

Flair started operations with a pair of Boeing 727s in 2005, flying cargo, and soon after, passenger charters. It got into scheduled flying almost through the back door, operating flights on behalf of New Leaf, which Flair later bought. It used a fleet of ageing Boeing 737-400s and leased 737-800s. In doing so, Flair was following a well-worn path among low-cost carriers in Canada – launching service with ageing aircraft that the full-service airlines no longer wanted.

Those same aircraft would land Flair in hot water in 2019 when the fledgeling airline launched services to the United States, then beat a hasty retreat. At the time, loads weren’t great, and demand for aircraft was so high, Flair could make more money returning their leased planes than continuing to fly them.

But with the pandemic raging, Flair and US-based 777 Partners, were able to secure new Max aircraft at favourable rates.

“We’re competing with the big boys now,” said Hardy, a veteran of Canada’s airline industry. “And we’ve got to become a big boy. Flying the latest generation of these airplanes give us a big chance to become very, very competitive.”

Fittingly, Hardy made his comments in the hangar that once housed Wardair aircraft. Hardy cut his teeth as a pilot with the airline. He pointed to Max Ward’s use of new aircraft through the years that you could use 14 hours a day and sometimes more. It’s that high utilization Flair is aiming to match.

COVID opens opportunities

The devastation of COVID on Canada’s airline industry is undeniable. Airlines slashed more than 20,000 jobs and are only starting to recover. Air Canada said Thursday it would recall 2,600 employees, seeing a rebound in demand for air travel. During the depths of the pandemic, Flair was down to one aircraft, flying four weekly rotations between Toronto and Vancouver, with stops in either Edmonton or Calgary.

Flair chief executive Stephen Jones (Brett Ballah).

“We can’t go on ringing our hands how much damage COVID did to the industry, we all know that,” said Hardy. “But there is also some good things that came out of it. For us, it gave us the opportunity for us to recruit some of the best and brightest.”

Hardy is high on Stephen Jones as chief executive, and he calls Chief Operating Officer Garth Lund a “wunderkind.”

“I think there’s plenty of opportunity here,” said Lund. The airline will operate to 19 cities domestically this summer, if all goes to plan. On Friday, for example, Flair will become the first ULCC to fly to Ottawa. “So I would say watch this space.”

Lund expects Flair, and all carriers, see demand ramp up this summer has vaccinations increase, and restrictions ease.

“During the summer we are only flying domestically,” he said. “But we are looking at flying south flying internationally from the winter. I think the messaging that we’ve received from the government about reopening international travel at least for vaccinated travellers, I think that’s really important and a very positive message.”

Flair rebirth
The registration on Flair’s first Boeing 737 Max is a nod to the airline’s past. LEJ was Flair’s first aircraft registration (Brett Ballah).

Preparing for winter travel

Rival Swoop released a winter travel schedule Thursday that includes routes from Canada to sun destinations in the United States and Mexico. The airline said new bookings are on par with pre-pandemic levels.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in demand for travel this summer, most especially in provinces where vaccination and re-opening plans are on track and clearly outlined,” said Charles Duncan, President of Swoop. The airline will add a 10th aircraft in time for the winter. “With the release of our winter schedule, those who are planning further ahead or dreaming of a vacation abroad can find our always affordable flights and Getaway packages available for booking through April 2022.”

To make international travel happen, the three global alliances staged a rare show of unity. They’re demanding governments lay out a plan for allowing greater international travel.

“International air travel and tourism are vital to the global economy,” said Kristin Colvile at SkyTeam, Rob Gurney for oneworld, and Jeffrey Goh of Star Alliance in a joint statement. “With considerable data now available to support government decisions in managing risks, decisive action from G7 members to open borders and support clear, consistent, and data-driven measures, would remove uncertainty,particularly around testing and quarantine.”

A tangible operation

North American airports committed Thursday to implementing a digital ‘vaccine passport.’ There are several possible technologies. The International Air Transport Association is signing on airlines for its Travel Pass Initiative. So far, governments in North America have been loathe to adopt the idea.

“As our citizens start to travel they will need to be assured of their health and safety throughout their journey,” said Kevin M. Burke of the Airports Council International and Canadian Airports Council President Daniel-Robert Gooch in a joint statement. “We therefore commit to support the development and introduction of digital health passes… and to take all possible steps to ensure their interoperability.”

Back in the flight deck of the new Boeing, the Max offers Matt Kunz a tangible sign of progress of the Flair rebirth.

“It’s finally here,” said Kunz. “This is a big step for us. It’s a brand new airplane, Flair’s first new airplane. It’s the first step our outreach across the country, so from a corporate point of view, that’s really important. But from an employee point of view, and I’ve been a big proponent of this for the non-flying staff; let them touch it. Come on the flight deck, crawl into the cargo hold and see what it is. Because this is what we do, we fly people around the country.”

Flair Airlines made this story financially possible, which the editors gratefully acknowledge, but had no editorial say in the content.

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