The challenge of making an ultra-low-cost airline work in Canada

We haven’t seen a rush of potential new entrants into the Canadian airline market like this in 15 years.

Winnipeg-based NewLeaf Travel started operations just over a year ago as a “virtual airline”, selling low-priced tickets to places like Edmonton and Hamilton on chartered Boeing 737s. In recent months, Flair Air, NewLeaf’s primary chartered-aircraft provider, purchased NewLeaf’s assets and started operating the service under the Flair brand.

More recently, WestJet announced plans to start an ultra-low-cost “airline within an airline” to compete on price-sensitive routes. Jetlines, a completely new startup, announced a Summer 2018 proposed launch date; and Enerjet, a small Calgary-based charter operator, also hopes to get a proposed ultra-low-cost airline called FlyToo into the air.

All hope to avoid the fate of the low-cost startups of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. These included Greyhound Air (Greyhound quit the industry in 1997, aircraft operator Kelowna Flightcraft survived), JetsGo (bankrupt, 2005), CanJet (changed from a scheduled operator to charter operator, 2006; suspended operations, 2015) and Harmony Airways (suspended operations, 2007).

If Europe’s Ryanair can take you from London to Portugal for fares as low as £101 round-trip ($166 Cdn.), and Australia’s JetStar can offer a Sydney-Adelaide round-trip for as little as $224 (same in Canadian dollars), why has it been so difficult to make low-fares work in Canada.*

Quite often, high taxes and fees have been blamed. For example, a Sept. 6-13 round-trip between Winnipeg and Montreal on Air Canada can be booked for $391.57 if you’re willing to fly on the less heavily booked flights. Of this, $89.57 — or 23 percent — is made up of taxes, fees and charges.

The other challenge is in convincing enough passengers to part with enough money to make the venture profitable.

Let’s take Ryanair, one of the industry’s fiercest penny-pinchers, as an example. This is the airline alleged to have pressured flight attendants to meet sales targets, spread families and couples randomly throughout the cabin for not paying extra for seat selection, and which mused about charging passengers to use the toilet.

Ryanair’s costs are impressively low, averaging out to just 3.63 U.S. cents (4.6 cents Cdn.) per seat per kilometre in recent times. Only a few airlines, such as Air Asia, have been able to wrestle their costs any lower. One way Ryanair does this is by packing more seats into each aircraft: one of their Boeing 737-800s can carry 189 passengers; WestJet only fits 168 seats into the same space.

What if a Canadian operator, hypothetically called JetManitoba, started flying Boeing 737-800s around North America, and matched Ryanair’s low costs through a combination of low wages, no overnight crew stops, high-density seating and a stringent nobody-gets-anything-for-free pricing model?

JetManitoba Flight 1, our hometown low-fare leader, starts out early in the morning with a round-trip to Vancouver and back. In the afternoon, it does another round-trip to somewhere else.

At a rock-bottom cost of 4.6 cents per seat-kilometre, JetManitoba’s 189-seat Boeing 737 needs sales of $32,516 (before taxes, fees and charges) to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip nominally break even.

No problem, you might think. $32,516 divided by 189 seats is a very reasonable $172 per seat round-trip. Add the taxes, fees and charges to that, and you can still offer a no-frills round-trip to Vancouver for less than $300. Just make the profit off of charging people $25 per checked bag or roll-aboard, $15 per person each way for seat selection (at risk of being assigned a random seat if you don’t pay up), and $15 per person for a drink and a sandwich (because JetManitoba has a monopoly on food sales at 36,000 feet).

Now, imagine it’s early February. The Canadian tourism industry is largely in hibernation. Winnipeg is under a Wind Chill Warning because it’s -24°C at midday, with the wind blowing from the northwest at 30 gusting to 50 kilometres per hour. In Vancouver, it’s raining as usual and no one has actually seen the sun in more than a week. Hardly anyone wants to be on holiday in either city.

Then what? The business travellers, who have no choice but to travel, tend to prefer Air Canada and WestJet over JetManitoba because of the better schedules. That leaves you largely with a tiny pool of would-be passengers that you somehow need to get at least $32,516 from to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip break even.

It doesn’t matter if you convince 189 people to part with $172 (plus taxes, etc.) each or 50 people to part with $650 each. It’s raising enough to cover that average of $32,516 in bills per round-trip that counts.

You could have a sale, offering 25 seats you know you will never sell for $172 for $99 or even $59 just to get a bit of cash flow to help you get through the low season, even if the flights are unprofitable.

Or cancel your Winnipeg-Vancouver service until the summer and fly to places that people actually want to fly to in February, such as southern resorts, competing directly with other airlines already serving these destinations. Again, for each round trip, you need to find a way of separating enough people in the community from enough money to keep your bills from falling into arrears. Not easy if there are more seats available than people capable of filling them.

Or just park the plane and lay people off until the tourism business starts to pick up again in the summer. You’ll still need to pay for the plane, if you can’t rent it out for the season, but at least your payroll and fuel costs will come way down.

Those are the challenges of running an ultra-low-cost airline in Canada. It is very difficult to make it work in a country where domestic leisure tourism all but shuts down for two-thirds of the year, the less price-sensitive business travel market is already well-served, and the seasonal international leisure routes are also well served by existing operators.

The ultra-low-cost-carrier business might start out with four contestants. Don’t bet on it carrying on like that.

 

* – Seat-only prices. Baggage, seat selection, food, beverages, etc. all extra.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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