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The ULCC model comes to Canada with Flair and Canadian Jetlines
By DREW ROWSOME
18 September 2017.


As the winter weather approaches, my daydreams start to drift towards escape. And heat. A Caribbean beach with waves lapping at my feet. An Orlando theme park. A weekend in Vegas with a sidetrip to the haunted Clown Motel. Acquiring an all-over tan in Palm Springs. Romping with the bears in Puerto Vallarta. Helping celebrate Miami being spared Irma's wrath, or finally making the pilgrimage to Gibsonton and Sarasota. And there are hundreds of other exotic and quixotic locales eager to be explored and savoured.

Part of the joy of a vacation south is the implied remoteness gifted by air travel. Great distance has been covered so one's troubles, and the snow, are far away and definitively out of mind. I've never been a nervous flyer despite one incident about to land in Newark and the landing gear wheels malfunctioned, much to the horror of the white-knuckled Air Egypt flight attendant seated beside me. If not for her terror and inside information, I would never have known, and would have just been frustrated at endlessly circling the wastelands of New Jersey before a noticeably bumpy touchdown.

And I flew once surrounded by the ear-splitting roar of a cropduster held together by duct tape as it struggled to lift off from the dirt runway of a third world airport. After all flying is much safer than driving, it's just the optics of being unnaturally in the air that triggers unreasonable fears. I brave the TTC at rush hour daily, I've driven as the Gardiner crumbled beneath me, so I'd like to think that I would be a Karen Black in an air emergency. 

Flights are usually just an inconvenience that has to be undertaken as a means of achieving one's destination (I exclude from that the once-in-a-lifetime first class flight to Dusseldorf on Lufthansa. No beach, but I would happily spend an entire week's vacation in that luxurious cocoon). And as we all like a bargain, or to spend as little as possible, the news that two new ULCCs (ultra-low-cost carriers) are ramping up operations in the next few months.

Canadian Jetlines is the most ambitious. Based out of the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport and the Region of Waterloo International Airport, they intend to initially offer flights to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Halifax. After a 90 day trial period for Transport Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency, they plan to add St John's, Las Vegas and Orlando, followed six months later by Fort Myers, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Cancun.

The key words are "low cost" and the company CEO, Stan Gadek, pumped up the rhetoric at a press conference announcing Canadian Jetlines "rebellion" against high airfares, "We're asking everyone to join us in that rebellion, to change the way that Canadians fly in this country." Noting that "Price is our product," he said that basic fares will cost about the same as a pair of jeans before backtracking slightly, "Jeans come in all sizes and styles and all prices, but these are going to be very affordable jeans."

The immediate competition is Flair Airlines who have a built-in advantage in a great moniker. The western Canada-based Flair currently flies between Abbotsford, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton and Winnipeg, with Vancouver and Toronto next on the list. They are aiming to be the lowest cost carrier between Toronto and Vancouver. And of course there will be more competition, Westjet has already announced plans for an ULCC division and Air Canada is mulling retooling its Rouge division in rebuttal.

I'm all for low airfares, travel is prohibitively expensive for most of us, but there is a downside to the ULCC model that should be considered. Low ticket prices have to be compensated for and right on the Canadian Jetlines website they state that they will "deploy strategies for maximizing ancillary revenue by selling additional services, such as in-flight food and baggage, to customers." Of course that process is already well underway across the industry, but there is that old adage "you get what you pay for."

In the mid-'80s I flew to New York on what was the prototype for the ULCC model. The airline was based out of the southern US and was run by an eccentric braggart millionaire (not Trump) who loudly announced that he was revolutionizing the airline industry. The flight from Buffalo to New York were dirt cheap but there were caveats: all baggage had to be handled by oneself, seating was first come first served, there was no in-flight entertainment or food or drink service of any sort, and the glamour that air travel once espoused was nowhere in evidence. It was not shabby chic or minimalist, it was threadbare and dirty.

The cost cutting measures also extended to the staff (always a concern as that is where corporations always first try to cut corners: lower salaries and benefits mean less overhead). The pilot was not in evidence beyond a surly disembodied voice with a thick southern drawl, and the flight attendants were charm school, and beauty school, dropouts. Years before the drama of people being bumped off flights due to overbooking, this airline made it an artform. The morning flight I had a ticket for was overbooked, so we were offered a free ticket to anywhere the airline flew, if we took the mid-morning flight instead. I instantly agreed.

When the mid-morning flight was overbooked I earned another free ticket by agreeing to suffer the Buffalo airport for another couple of hours. The noon flight boarded, stayed on the tarmac for a few hours due to mechanical issues and then was cancelled, no recompense for that. I didn't get to New York until late in the evening. A one-hour flight had taken all day. And I never used the free tickets. The flight was so hellish and uncomfortable that I - even though financially strapped at the time and quite inured to extended periods without comforts beyond the basics - from then on sprung for the Air Canada flights from, in pre-Porter days, the Toronto Island airport. 

That airline went bankrupt shortly after that, leaving absolutely no-one stranded. Being the least expensive did not compensate for being sub-standard. While air travel has morphed from glamorous to utilitarian to apparently bargain basement, it is still important to be able to enjoy the travel as well as the destination. The race to dominate the skies is not necessarily compatible with a race to the bottom of the barrel. That being said, I will undoubtedly book my next flight with price being one of the top deciding factors. And if that means another ULCC experience, I am going to fervently believe that the Canadian version will be appropriately superior.

 

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