Another week, another trip. This is my last one on the books for a while - I scheduled the past few as “rewards” for making it through another postgrad semester. Luckily, my recently discovered wanderlust coincides with a revolutionary period for the Canadian air industry. Low-cost travel has existed there for years. However, it was not until recently that the market took the next step forward. In an attempt to mimic their raving success in the United States, the past few years have seen the emergence of ultra-low-cost carriers in Canada, giving the public a new way to experience air travel.
The Ultra-Low-Cost Traveler
If you are reading this and are unaware of the difference between a low-cost and ultra-low-cost carrier, essentially, an ultra-low-cost carrier only initially charges a base airfare (Spirit calls it the “Bare Fare”), where the customer then picks and chooses from there what else is required for their trip. Like a phone plan or McDonald’s order, the price grows based on only what is desired. In Canada, airlines are even required to provide a breakdown of the fare structure for customers to maintain transparency so that the public understands what is being charged. This is not currently the case here. However, proposed regulation changes would also make it mandatory in the United States.
From the outside perspective, obvious similarities make low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers challenging to differentiate. For example, both have a common fleet type and focus on point-to-point flying. Low-cost carriers differ because their product is more inclusive for a slightly higher fee. For example, Southwest allows passengers the option of two checked bags. JetBlue has rolled out its signature Mint product and a fleet of aircraft equipped with superior in-flight entertainment (including free Wi-Fi). If these were ultra-low-cost carriers, these services would be considered additional revenue streams to charge consumers.
Further, ultra-low-cost airlines will often comprise their flight schedule frequencies less-than-daily to minimize a station's operating costs when feasible. Picking the peak days of the week, an airline like Allegiant will make smaller markets profitable while providing attractive getaway options for the local community.
The ultra-low-cost market, usually synonymous with carriers like Spirit and Frontier, has grown significantly in the past 5-10 years. This type of travel has mainly emerged after COVID-19, where there is an acknowledged demand for those who chase the lowest airfare as many premium travelers have moved to private travel alternatives.
C.E.O. of Avelo Airlines, Andrew Levy, made a plea while speaking to a room full of airport executives that airports should begin to make convenience their most pressing issue for infrastructure development as to cater to the ultra-low-cost traveler:
“It needs to be efficient. It needs to be easy to get in and out of. Don’t overbuild your airport; that money is being misspent. Customers don’t care about art; they don’t care about big windows."
Below are Canada’s ultra-low-cost carriers, in no particular order:
Cool paint, right? I think so. I have proudly made a few trips on Flair already. Funded by the United States firm 777 Partners, who can only hold a 25% stake to remain in compliance with Canadian foreign operator regulations, Flair restructured to what we know of them today like that of Sun Country - including a complete rebranding into their distinct lime-green livery. Previously a charter airline, the firm began to focus on scheduled air service in 2019.
Flair has been successful enough that 777 Partners have launched the Australian ultra-low-cost carrier Bonza, essentially a photocopy of Flair. Operating a fleet of Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, Flair continues to expand while keeping costs low.
Like Flair, Porter has been around for some time, however, known for their Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 network principally out of Toronto-City Centre. Porter does everything an ultra-low-cost carrier does except explicitly identify as one, so I will leave that up to interpretation.
Porter had entertained the thought of jet service for several years. You may even recall their attempt to relax heavy restrictions imposed on traffic operating out of Toronto-City Centre as part of an airport expansion that would have coincided with a large order for what we know today as the Airbus A220-100.
At some point, Porter turned their attention to Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, eventually placing an order for 50 of their Embraer E195-E2 aircraft, which they began to take deliveries this year. The aircraft, being too large to operate out of Toronto-City Centre, is primarily based out of Toronto-Pearson. Not to give away anything, but you may hear more about Porter in the upcoming months!
Photo: Daniel Klein via JetPhotos.net.
Anticipating a market shift, the already-low-cost carrier WestJet launched its ultra-low-cost subsidiary, Swoop, in 2017. This makes them the longest-standing distinct ultra-low-cost carrier in Canada, making them one of the first to the market.
Swoop had another significant advantage as parent company WestJet already owned the required resources to launch operations rapidly. At first, they were able to shift some of their aircraft and crewmembers to their shiny new toy, but from there, Swoop has since been able to acquire dedicated resources of their own.
Unfortunately, unlike Song, travelers on Swoop cannot earn anything towards their WestJet rewards - the carriers operate independently.
Photo: CityHopper on JetPhotos.net.
After ten years of planning, the most recent addition to the ultra-low-cost sector, Canada Jetlines, began service in the Fall of 2022 between Toronto-Pearson and Calgary. Serving five destinations across three countries with two Airbus A320s, Jetlines plans a steady increase in the coming years. Much is kept under wraps, just like their parent company Global Crossing Airlines (Global X) of the United States.
In addition to their scheduled network, they are leasing aircraft to carriers currently facing issues with their delivery or maintenance schedules (the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo/A321neos are both facing separate complications with their fleet). Having recently agreed to acquire their third Airbus A320, we expect more to come from Jetlines shortly.
Finally, the reason you are reading this today. Suppose you are not really into aviation and are from Canada. In that case, you might not know that Lynx has been a carrier for several years, previously under the name Enerjet. Like Flair, Enerjet focused mainly on charter contracts, primarily shuffling oil workers from site to site, but since 2012 had sought to venture into scheduled commercial air service.
After securing the required funding from the notable firm Indigo Partners (you may know them from their significant investments in carriers such as Frontier, Volaris, and Wizz Air), the rebranding to Lynx Air was announced in 2018. Due to COVID-19, the airline could not launch operations until 2022. It is interesting to think about because, had the carrier launched operations before the onset of COVID-19, who knows if they would have been prepared to survive?
Since its inception into service, Lynx Air has set a consistent growth rate primarily due to firm management at the top. C.E.O. Merren McArthur, who previously served in the same role at Tigerair Australia and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, has done a stellar job balancing the economies of scale with the industry’s booming demand for ultra-low-cost travel. Other notable senior executives are C.O.O. Tim Morgan, who previously served as Senior Vice President at WestJet, and C.C.O. Vijay Bathija, who spent time with Etihad Airways and competitor Air Canada Rouge. Morgan had also once joined Enerjet, where he also worked with C.F.O. Michael Holditch. These roles are subject to change over time; however, with the impressive growth of Lynx Air, I felt they deserved to be recognized.
The only way to make this idea work was to pick a Canadian city to overnight, which will be Calgary 8 times out of 10 for me. In a town in the middle of nowhere, I find Calgary unique in many ways. Additionally, their airport is impressive - a simple layout, a nice mix of tails, and traffic is relatively busy. Win-win. Calgary International Airport is also home to the carrier above WestJet, where they have established headquarters and hold big expansion plans for their already-impressive hub here soon.
After some digging, I found a CAD 110 fare between Toronto-Pearson and Calgary, and with a couple of clicks, my foray to Alberta was booked.
The aircraft that brought me to Calgary was Lynx’s seventh Boeing 737 MAX 8, painted in their new revised livery featuring adorable paw imprints on the fuselage. The latest aircraft in the fleet, C-GLYX, at the time, had only a couple weeks of revenue service under her belt. This was the first time I got on an aircraft, and was struck by its “newness.” The seats were fresh, but more importantly, the safety card was spotless, and I swiftly added it to my growing collection.
The purpose of these posts is primarily to share an experience that made me happy, so I will keep the “flight review” portion relatively brief:
Online check-in saved me from a slow-moving line at the airport. I hope one day, Lynx will integrate Apple Wallet into their platform. However, I acknowledge this is selfish of me to say since the primary reason I care is that I collect them!
The airport operations staff was outsourced at both YYC and YYZ. I’m unsure if they have any above-wing or below-wing presence elsewhere; however, there was not much urgency to get the flights out on time at both stations.
Even for my long-haul flights, I do not need a four-course meal - seriously, I know what I am about and come prepared. That being said, all that was served on the almost four-hour flight was two rounds of water in, as you can imagine, a small cup. Even if you wanted a snack, there were no options to buy from - the water was it.
Operationally, it felt like there were a lot of kinks to be worked out. The first flight featured a double-booked passenger that resulted in a significant delay, likely because the flight originated in Halifax and continued to Calgary. A passenger originating in Toronto was booked on top of a passenger who started in Halifax.
The flight crew, the pilots, and the flight attendants were enjoyable. Not to generalize, but I find this can be rare when flying ultra-low-cost carriers. As an example, consider all the Spirit Airlines videos you have watched on TikTok.
The interior of the aircraft was fresh and spotless. The seats were quite comfortable, and I found that legroom was not a problem (for reference, I am 6’1”).
This may sound like I did not enjoy my Lynx experience, but that was not the case. I chalk these slight inconveniences up to growing pains as the airline has been carrying passengers for about a year. I am sure they will only improve as time passes and Lynx continues to grow. If not, there is too much competition for them to survive. For example, Flair, Air Canada, WestJet, and Porter operated the same route and times on my flight segment.
If anything, I am excited to fly Lynx Air again, as there are other parts of Canada I would like to explore in due time. Look for competition in Canada to heat up in the coming years!