A new Flair carrier

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | November 16, 2018

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 30 seconds.

Jim Scott has big dreams for his airline, and customer experience is key to them all.

Scott, the president and CEO of Flair Airlines, sat down with Skies during the Air Transport Association of Canada’s annual conference on Nov. 14 in Vancouver, B.C.

Flair Airlines is aiming to be Canada's low-cost carrier of choice. President Jim Scott said it all starts with a strong brand and the ability to deliver the best customer service at the ULCC price point. Flair Airlines Photo
Flair Airlines is aiming to be Canada’s low-cost carrier of choice. President Jim Scott said it all starts with a strong brand and the ability to deliver the best customer service at the ULCC price point. Flair Airlines Photo

The Flair team has been busy since it officially transitioned from a charter operator to Canada’s first ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) on June 15, 2018.

Seventy employees were hired for the launch, and the airline continues to recruit pilots, flight attendants and support staff to meet its aggressive expansion targets. Today, Flair employs 369 people.

“Aggressive but realistic growth”

By the end of 2020, Scott–a former airline pilot himself–is aiming to have 20 Boeing 737-800NGs operating across Canada and into selected U.S. destinations.

He predicts the company ranks will swell to 1,300 employees by that time.

“We want to increase our reach to different destinations, but also provide frequency to destinations we are currently on,” Scott told Skies. “We did 10 domestic destinations this summer and dropped to eight domestic for the winter, and we are introducing six U.S. destinations in the next 30 days.”

On Nov. 8, the airline began winter service to Las Vegas, Nev., from Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton. On Dec. 15, it will be launching flights to other U.S. sun destinations, including Palm Springs, Calif.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Miami, Orlando and St. Petersburg in Florida.

Flair currently operates a fleet of seven Boeing 737-400 aircraft, although Scott said it plans to upgrade to larger and more efficient 737-800NG jets by January 2019.

“We are bringing in two wet-leased aircraft [a wet lease includes both aircraft and crew] so we can take our own pilots off the line for training, and get them into 737-800s by January.”

The extra range offered by the 737-800NG aircraft will allow Flair to fly non-stop from Edmonton to Miami, for example. From there, passengers will be able to connect with cruise ships departing from that port.

Scott said Flair’s current daily aircraft utilization is 8.5 hours per airplane, and the goal is to increase that to 12 hours per day once the new aircraft are in service.

Building a brand

Flair is aiming to be Canada’s low-cost carrier of choice, and Scott said it all starts with a strong brand.

“We’re really working on our branding, customer service, flight attendant uniforms–our whole look. The way we do business will be customer focused,” he said. “It’s our opinion that price will get them to the aircraft once, but service will get them there over and over.”

The key, said Scott, is to follow the customer’s journey through their entire experience with Flair. From booking to baggage claim, the airline needs to provide its service very, very well.

He admitted the company’s aggressive growth this past summer led to some problems with customer communications.

“When I took over the airline [in January 2018], I doubled the flying and then doubled it again later in the year. It’s gone up four times in volume from when I took the airline over.

“But the call centre didn’t expand at that rate. We outgrew our infrastructure and that’s what happened this summer.”

He said Flair is now hiring “the infrastructure that will last us to 16 airplanes, so we won’t be caught out again.”

Scott doesn’t underestimate the importance of delivering the best customer service possible at the ULCC price point. He said the Canadian market is different from that of the U.S. or Europe, and any carrier who does not understand that is inviting failure.

“It really is price plus customer service in Canada. In Europe and the U.S., you can get away with price only. If you don’t understand the Canadian marketplace, you are at risk of making huge mistakes in your marketing because of the Canadian psyche.”

He added that in Canada, good customer service is not about providing “lounges and limousines.” Rather, it’s about providing customers with what they have paid for–and quickly fixing any issues that arise.

Growing a customer base

For the most part, Flair aims to attract passengers who wouldn’t normally fly, but are now able to do so because fares are low.

“We are creating our own customer base. Most of them who have flown with Flair have not flown with another airline, and they will come back to us,” said Scott.

“We’ve already seen that we are sometimes higher priced than Swoop. But we have higher loads, and the reason is brand loyalty.”

In the summer, Flair’s load factors were above 90 per cent; currently, in the so-called “shoulder season,” they are still maintaining loads in the neighbourhood of 80 per cent. The airline is heavily booked into the Christmas season and beyond, said Scott.

He explained that while other airlines focus on business passengers who fly year-round, Flair’s bread and butter is the discretionary traveller.

“They stop flying in the cold weather,” said Scott. “And price will not stimulate at 40 below.”

When the mercury drops, Canadians stop visiting and the east-west traffic pattern changes to north-south.

“That’s when you’ll find a lot of these secondary airports are difficult to stimulate traffic,” said Scott, explaining why Flair chooses to service major airports like Toronto Pearson and Vancouver International.

He also believes the only true ULCC airport in Canada is Abbotsford International in B.C. With that one exception, “the secondary airports don’t save you a great deal more than using the big airports.”

Plus, it’s difficult during non-peak seasons to fill seats on new routes. Generally speaking, Flair needs to be serving a route for six weeks before it will see an 80 per cent load factor.

“The reality is that to build up a city, there has to be other factors. One is your brand. Once they try it, Canadians are loyal to a brand.”

Of course, another key advantage is people. Scott said Flair is fortunate to have a highly experienced team that knows the Canadian marketplace.

“Everyone who works for us knows the difference between summer and winter schedules and knows the shoulder seasons. We can now forecast a route to within two per cent of its performance with passenger load factors, price and auxiliary revenue.”

He said the call centre has even pinpointed the highest-selling day of the week, even down to the hour when demand is greatest, so it can staff accordingly.

“The passion of the staff is what differentiates us,” said Scott proudly. “Everybody at Flair wants the airline to be the best it can be. We take pride in our brand and everybody is extremely excited to be at work.”

A lifestyle with Flair

Flair is one of the few unionized Canadian airlines authorized to hire direct entry captains. While Scott said the company does have a program to promote its first officers, he said the direct entry clause has helped to ensure the new ULCC is not feeling the pinch of the current pilot shortage.

“We have a very good contract with Unifor. We are paying 75 per cent market force wages, but we have a lifestyle contract with clauses that protect time off. If our pilots volunteer to fly on their day off, they are paid double time.”

He said several Flair pilots are now reaching out to fellow pilots, and some have even returned home from overseas jobs “because of the lifestyle contract and the ability to advance quickly to the left seat.”

For ULCCs, a big part of success is controlling costs. Scott said Flair’s target cost per available seat mile (CASM)–an industry benchmark used to evaluate operational expenses–is 10 cents or lower at today’s fuel prices.

“We are sitting slightly above that now, but we’ll be there by the time we get the first few 800s aboard. We’ve done a really good job on our costs.”

When asked whether Canada can support more than one ULCC, Scott said Flair and WestJet’s Swoop are finding a “natural balance.”

“We are into markets Swoop is not,” he said. “They have gone to markets where we are not. Between us, we have the country covered.”

Future markets for Flair include Ottawa and more Eastern Canadian destinations in Quebec and the Maritimes. Scott said the airline will be changing some previously seasonal markets, like Victoria, B.C., to year-round service to increase frequency.

“We’ll move a million passengers in a 12-month period,” he said. “We are starting to increase our flying because we have a core business now.”

Currently, 65 per cent of Flair flights go through its home base at Edmonton International Airport. Scott said the airline enjoys a strong partnership with the airport and the fast-growing city has the “right demographics.”

But again, he emphasized, it comes down to customer experience.

“We want to be known as affordable airfare, but with a caring and compassionate customer service model.”

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  1. Avatar for Lisa Gordon
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  1. I applaud Mr. Scott’s ambitions but when it comes to customer service, Flair missed the mark entirely with a flight booked for myself and my wife almost a year in advance and out of Hamilton. Things went sideways, a third party EDreams was blamed and we suffered the consequences. Swoop was there to save our trip but at great expense.

  2. Flair has been a great airline to fly from Abbotsford International to Winnipeg, direct flight.
    Planes are full every time I fly. The demand is there…we need this airline offering this route.
    Great new planes too.
    You have a loyal customer in me.
    D.Mark Kowal

  3. I disagree with the customer service part
    We had a 7 hour delay in September 2018, and all families on that fight was showing up with no notification of delay. We had a our 2year old grandson that had never been on a plane before exhausted and turned ill from the stress of no sleep waiting till 1:30am for new flight. We drove 3 hours from Manitoba area and dropped of at the airport thinking flight was was still on time.
    All we were offered was a 10 dollar voucher, and not one explanation of why.
    On the Tuesday I called into head office with all details of the worst trip of my life, and I received from that associate Miss Sue I have all your information and you will be hearing from our management team in the next couple days.
    We are now into mid- November and have had no return call. And Flair owner is correct, Candians are big on communication.
    After this behavior and lack of communication on Flairs behave we have just traveled with Swoop flawless and no issues to share.

  4. Flair Airlines may have affordable flights. But their customer service sucks.

    When I booked a flight to Toronto, it was a nightmare. Couldn’t get through to talk to anyone on the phone. Was on the phone for 2 hours waiting then the call would drop. I probably spent around 6 hours on the phone all together and never spoke to anyone. I received an email from the airline explaining there was a flight change and to speak to an agent. Guess what! I couldn’t talk to anyone because I was on hold again, then the call dropped. Oh yes……i had to call a direct line. What airline doesn’t have a toll free number so you don’t have to pay long distance charges when you call and have your call dropped.

    When your on your flight and you arrive at your layover. A flight attendant tells you that the seat your in is not your seat. Because of the layover, the flight number changed and they don’t tell you that when you first check in. To top it off the flight was fully booked. Lucky for my daughter and I, 2 people didn’t show up so we were able to stay and change our boarding passes.

    This is the experience you or many may experience with this airline. You get what you pay for, that’s for sure. And remember they talk about how good their customer service is. Well it’s terrible.

  5. Once again, Canadians on the east coast are not considered important enough to include until “the future”. NOT impressed.
    “East-west travel”. Very hard to do that when this new airline doesn’t fly further east than Toronto any time of the year, never mind in winter months. I guess Atlantic Canada isn’t considered part of the country.
    For over 20 years, we’ve flown south and only 3 years were we able to fly directly from Halifax International Airport. All other flights have necessitated flying through Toronto which adds a minimum of 2 hours (each way) in flying time and sometimes a night in a hotel.

    It is very tedious when any province east of CENTRAL Canada i.e. Ontario and Quebec is never part of any discussion…whether it be airlines, pipelines, or any other supposedly national story.
    And the media is not exempt from excluding the true EASTERN Canada in their reporting, either.

  6. You need to fixed airplane, to often delay, staff no where to be seen when issue arise to inform passenger. No compensation, vouchers for passengers who waited long 6 hours delay.or more. The longest delay was 16 hours in Winnipeg just recently.

  7. I use Flair all the time when we fly l would like to see the $100.00 charge for a change. When a reasonable reason arises… GREAT to hear your heading for better times !!

  8. Regina would be great to fly out of ….lots if people here have family’s in Ontario and fly back and forth alot but complaining bout extreme high rates ar Christmas when that average customer needs that deal then the most as the expense sometimes stops families from being together at most important time of year …I myself paid 1800 for me and my son to fly home last year ….hoping flair will come to regina..and hoping I can fly me and my son home for the holidays at a fair price

  9. I flew Flair in August 2018 and it was the worst experience I have ever had. I sure hope they improve their communications, they changed my flight and never communicated it to me. I sure hope they improve their commitment to booking, I booked direct flights and they ended up being stop overs. It was a joke from start to finish.

    I will do all I can in the future to avoid Flair, I listened to people in the lounge and on the plane and it was dozens of stories just like mine. Flair will continue because they offer cut rate fares but know, the service is cut far below the savings.

  10. My customer service experience with Flair has been horrible. I booked flights for me and my partner on a two leg trip for Christmas. The first was from Vancouver to Calgary the second was from Edmonton back to Vancouver. Somehow, mistakenly, my partner ended up with my surname instead of her own on the reservation. Flair demanded that I pay $125 to her surname to her actual name. Worse than that they wanted to charge me $125 per leg. It took four very frustrating and sometimes infuriated phone calls to finally get them to simply delete my name and enter hers.
    Further, because I identified her as “Miss” instead of “Ms.”, they had her as a child instead of an adult. That was a whole other round of stupidity. On another flight I had prepaid for checked baggage which was a guitar. Upon arrival at the airport I found out that I couldn’t get insurance for the guitar. So I opted not to take it. They informed me that I couldn’t get a refund for baggage that I paid for but was not putting on the plane. I never got that back. So basically, the article about the importance of customer service and experience above is complete corporate BS.

  11. Seems like All negative comments above ordered/paid by Air Canada and Westjet. FLAIR excellent and very affordable Airline and we highly recommend for friends and family

    1. There will always be issues when any business expands so quickly. Mr. Scott has recognized that, as he states in the article. I’m sure that customer service will get better, and Flair is filling a huge need for reasonably priced air travel. The future looks bright for Flair Airlines.

  12. Flying, or more accurately waiting to fly with Flair was the worst airline experience of my life. Flight out of Toronto was scheduled to depart for 7am. At 7am we still had not boarded and the gate crew announced “unscheduled maintenance of the plane, we will update you every 15 minutes”. Two and a half hours later they were still repeating the same message and there was still no information about if the flight would be cancelled, if we should make other arrangements, nothing. The gate crew knew absolutely nothing, they didn’t even know what the issue on the plane was. They could not provide any number to call for updates or any help. I called the customer service number from the website and they told me according to their systems the plane was still showing as scheduled to depart at 7am, this was at 10am! Through customer service I had my flight cancelled, and rebooked with westjet at a large extra cost with their next available flight at 4pm. The customer service said their policy is to not provide money for flights rebooked with other airlines. She said they have a new plane arriving and leaving at 12 noon (this is 5 hours past the scheduled departure time). As we waited for our westjet flight, we watched the flight information board to see if the Flair flight would in fact leave at 12 noon. Big surprise, at almost 1230pm the flight info updates to say the flair flight is now delayed till 2pm (7 hours past scheduled departure).

    I was told by customer service they don’t have a complaints department and she had no idea if or when anyone from the company would respond to my complaint. There was no feeling of them trying to help me at all.

    Horrible, never again.

  13. All you people complaining.
    Did you arrive safe and sound? Did you save yourself from a long and tiring drive? Did you save money?
    Quit your complaining or next time ride a bus.
    Oh…. and for many of you, learn to use proper grammar and punctuation. Several free online spellcheck apps available, too.

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