By Stephen Jones
The CEO of WestJet has been quick to blame airports — and Canada — for why Canadians can’t have affordable airfare. An opinion contributor in this newspaper cited the CEO in an Oct. 21 column on the subject. They’re wrong for blaming airports, infrastructure and Canada, and for the assertion that the ultralow-cost airline model (such as Ryanair in Europe or Spirit Airlines in the U.S.) can’t work here.
Those of us in the airline industry have each heard myriad reasons: “Canada’s population is too small,” or “Everyone lives between Toronto and Montreal,” or “Airport costs are too high,” or “It’s too cold.”
Canadians already benefit from low fares. There are more seats available to buy than ever before in Canada. Where there is more supply, prices fall.
For example, Canadian domestic economy fares were down 21 per cent in September compared to the previous year, according to industry data. The additional supply comes from true ultralow-cost airlines such as Flair and Lynx, and new entrants such as Porter. Today, you can regularly find coast-to-coast flights, or to the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean, for less than $99 one-way. In Flair’s case, in September 2023 more than 410,000 passengers did exactly that. Don’t take my word for it. Search for flights between Calgary and Phoenix or Toronto and Florida for this winter to see for yourself.
It is true that Canada’s airport fees — ultimately paid for by customers — are higher than most countries. Many industry observers say this, including some of our airport partners. And yet, we fly.
Airport fees account for only about 15 per cent of historical fare fluctuations. In Flair’s case, we choose to fly to airports with lower fees such as Abbotsford, B.C., and Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario. Not every airline pays the same fees at every airport, and those savings are passed directly to customers in the form of — you guessed it — lower fares. Further proof? Sun Country, a U.S. low-cost carrier, announced plans to fly from Minneapolis to Toronto and Montreal. We welcome them, and so will Canadians.
Others blame Canada. There’s the myth that Canadians can’t have low fares because our beautiful country is too large, with the population spread thinly and the distances too long. (I’ve even heard some say it’s too cold to operate flights profitably and on time.)
Consider that Australia’s population is 26 million — spread across a huge expanse — and where 90 per cent of residents live within 100 kilometres of the coast. Chile’s population is 19 million, spread across a long, skinny and scenic country. In each case, there are thriving ultralow-cost airlines such as JetStar, Rex and Bonza in Australia, and Sky and JetSmart in Chile — each of which has sizable fleets. Similar examples abound.
Indeed, Flair Airlines flies about the same distance as Wizz, a leading European ultralow-cost airline. It’s not the distance flown that matters that much, it’s a question of whether you have fuel-efficient aircraft and a motivated team, coupled with great destinations and fares that get people off the couch.
So, why hasn’t it worked before in Canada?
Canada didn’t have a true, independent ultralow-cost airline in the mould I’ve described in Europe and the U.S. (or Australia and Chile). Swoop was an airline within WestJet, whose sole purpose was to hurt competition. Air Canada Rouge served a similar purpose. But, that’s changed now.
Canadians can have nice things, too, despite what others say or who they blame. And one of those things is affordable airfare.
Stephen Jones is the CEO of Alberta-based Flair Airlines.