Airfares can be affordable. There. We said it. It’s no longer a secret. All those times you longed to go on vacation, visit friends and family, or commute cross-province for work can now be a reality. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the honest truth. Flair Airlines, Canada’s best kept secret, has moved from Kelowna to Edmonton with the intent of bringing low fare flights to the Capital City–and of giving the world yet another reason to visit the place we come home.
The man behind it all is executive chairman David Tait, a renegade businessman with decades of aviation management experience, which includes the launch of Virgin Atlantic Airways with Sir Richard Branson and having the Order of the British Empire pinned on his lapel by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his service to British aviation in the United States.
But when Tait thinks about how it all began, he laughs, “It was by sheer mistake!”
During the 60s, Tait couldn’t go to university due some unfortunate life circumstances, so he started his working life in the same company as his father. Soon after, he took to the road on a one-way ticket to visit a friend in Spain and inadvertently wound up working with a British airline. That job led to a position with Britannia Airways, which had just launched in 1961 (and would become the country’s largest charter operator by 1972). During his travels, which included time with the iconic Wardair in Toronto, Tait had met airline entrepreneur and business magnate, Sir Frederick Alfred Laker – or plain Freddie to his friends. Freddie would later recruit Tait away from Wardair to become general manager for Laker Airways in Canada, and he stayed with the company until it closed its doors in 1982. From there, Tait joined AM&M, an airline consultancy in Miami, but Freddie soon tracked him down.
“He told me he’d had a call from some rock and roll guy in the music business,” reminisces Tait. “He said, ‘he’s probably crazy, but when he asked if I knew anyone in the US that could help him start an airline I gave him your name.’ Next thing I know, I’m on the phone with this Richard Branson guy and he wants to send me a ticket to come to London.”
At that time, the Virgin Records brand was just another label and Branson wasn’t well known. The soon to-be billionaire was living on a houseboat that doubled as his office. Branson was miffed over the consistently bad and overpriced service he experienced on transatlantic flights, so he felt that airline service was in need of an overhaul. So, naturally, he would simply overhaul it.
“At first I thought he was certifiably insane,” says Tait dryly, “but I became captivated by his enthusiasm. I helped him craft the business plan for what would become Virgin Atlantic Airways and was one of its first employees.”
As executive VP and executive director-North America, Tait has been credited by Branson among others for the success of the Virgin brand.
Tait left Virgin Atlantic in 2001 and embarked on a series of new aviation adventures that, in 2005, led him to become senior vice present, customer service for Air Canada in Montreal, and it was here that he clued into a serious problem with Canadian airline service.
“A gap existed in Canada,” says Tait. “WestJet had burst on the scene as a low-fare carrier but was slowly morphing into a clone of the mainstream airlines. Countless Canadians have stopped looking at air travel because they simply can’t afford it. Air fares in Canada are some of the highest in the world.”
Tait thought back to what he saw in his mentors and colleagues, Freddie Laker and Richard Branson – that “can’t” was not a viable word, that a radical idea could change the world, and that, if you saw something you didn’t like, you could go ahead and fix it. He wanted to be part of the solution so, earlier this year, when the chance came along he jumped at joining Flair.
“You can put low fares out there. That is what Flair is all about,” says Tait. “Consistently putting out low fares and providing a way for you to pay for just the extras you value without having to pay for stuff you don’t want.” That said, Tait never wants the idea of low fares to be confused with cheap or value-lacking. He feels the consumer must have a paradigm shift when it comes to their options.
“I don’t like the term ‘low cost.’ I prefer ‘low fare.’ One way we keep our costs low is by unbundling the old all-inclusive model into an à la cart model where people pay for only the things they value. Want a drink on board? Fine, you can pay for it. Don’t want to bring a checked bag? Then you don’t have to subsidize someone else’s, which is how the old so-called ‘free’ system used to work.
“We are not trying to make money from bags. Our fee structure is designed to encourage customers to check a bag rather than bring it into the cabin. By charging only for checked bags, other airlines have unwittingly created an incentive for everyone to try and bring as much as possible into the cabin. We’ve all seen the battles this causes when people try to jam giant ‘wheelies’ into overhead bins. We charge less for a checked bag than a carry on, which makes for faster boarding and deplaning and eliminates overhead turf wars. More baggage equals more weight, which means burning more fuel, which raises costs and in turn ticket prices. It’s really a very simple equation.
“It’s all about the choices you value. The old airline model with lots of ‘free’ stuff was really like menu where you pay $50 for soup, salad, a main course and dessert. What if you just want the main course? You still have to pay for the whole thing and you wind up subsidizing the people that take the full meal deal.”
He’s frustrated with the perception that low fares mean low service or cutting corners. The carrier is focused on listening intently to input from its customers and its people. One request from a passenger was to have energy drinks available for purchase on board. Flair added them in July. “Nobody else was doing it; so what better reason do we need?” he enthused.
“When you meet someone in the arrivals level of an airport, the first question is usually, ‘How was the flight?’ ‘Fine’ is not a good enough answer to me. Right now, people’s expectations aren’t high, and we want to change that. Our fliers are surprised that they are not being squeezed into the cabin like sardines because they paid a low fare. Our legroom is actually greater than most of the big airlines. We like to exceed expectations!”
The validation, however, is when someone steps off a Flair aircraft, delighted with their experience, and shares it with others. In fact, at a recent social event, someone raved about how much she’d enjoyed a recent trip on Flair and urged Tait to try them. “Oh, really?” mused the executive chairman, before admitting that he worked for the airline.
Earlier this year, Flair announced it was relocating its headquarters from Kelowna, BC to Edmonton and as such would become the city’s hometown airline.
“Kelowna was a great home when Flair was a small charter airline, but the airport and market are not big enough to support our planned expansion as a low fare airline. Edmonton International Airport has everything we need from an operational and labour standpoint. Here we can double or even triple our market over the next two or three years. It makes total sense to have our headquarters where the action is.”
Tait says he has become “beguiled” with Edmonton and has been exploring it since joining Flair and starting the airline’s transition to the Capital City.
“I had no idea the city had so many fabulous ravines. Flair has temporarily positioned itself as one of Canada’s ‘best kept secrets,’ and in that regard we seem to have a lot in common with Edmonton!”
Flair has actually been around for more than a decade, but it’s only been offering scheduled flights for a year. Regardless, thanks to aggressively low fares, comfortable cabins, and outstanding service, the airline is a strong competitor in the aviation industry. Tait relies on his previous experience to keep Flair moving forward.
“At Virgin Atlantic, for the first two years we had just one airplane that flew between Newark, New Jersey, and London Gatwick. At Flair, we’re still tiny with just seven airplanes but one can really have fun leveraging ‘smallness.’ You can do things your competitors are not nimble enough or adventurous enough to do. I relish being the little guy on the big guys’ playing field. Believe me, when I was at that big airline in Montreal, with 12,000 flight attendants and crew, I saw how hard it was to change even relatively little things.
“Freddie, who was every bit as big a renegade as Branson, really taught me how to see things differently and that’s what we’re doing with Flair. I learned that there is no such thing as a crazy idea. Don’t listen to the self-proclaimed industry experts. They will always find a reason not to do something. ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ – a line I gave him – sums up Branson’s view on life, and what I learned from him, was to look at any business from the outside in. How does your customer see you? He was tired of lousy airline service, so he created Virgin Atlantic. He was tired of signing up for long contracts for phone service, so he created contract-free Virgin Mobile. When some industry expert says it’s never going to happen because it’s never worked before, that’s usually the sign of an opportunity to do it just differently enough to make it work.”
Another way Flair is making strong strides in the scheduled flight industry is by ensuring travellers with autism have a smoother travel experience.
“Flair’s plans for autism-friendly travel will not just involve the airline, but also hotels near the airports,” explains Tait. “For autistic guests, this will involve practice boarding for the family. They can stay at the hotel at night and do a practice run: security, the boarding gate, in-flight announcements, deplaning, and maybe even a short flight.” Autism Edmonton is working with Flair to set up the experience. “One in 56 children are born autistic,” says Tait. “This [autism-friendly travel plan] is needed and helps us give back to the community.”
He’s a man that has spent decades building up some of the world’s most successful airlines, working shoulder to shoulder with titans of the airline industry, and he was personally honoured by the Queen – so when did he have time to also become a best-selling author?
Being a writer was life-long dream of Tait’s, and like everything else in his life that he wanted, he simply went out and made it happen. In addition to eight years writing his weekly Tait on Travel column for Travel Industry Today, he has ghost-written several books, as well as one ‘in his own write’ on the Obama administration that became a Washington Post best seller. “Writing is my first love,” Tait admits. Another thing he likes to do? Grocery shopping. One of the least favourite household chores is one of this enigma’s happy places.
Airline executive. Writer. Father-of-five. Grocery shopper. It’s a full life and Tait loves it; and he can’t wait to see Flair change Canada’s notions of air travel.
“I want to see Flair get bigger and better. I really want to see Flair change the nature of aviation in Canada. The traditional thinking is that Canada can’t support a third airline and that’s true if you look at the old model. We don’t see ourselves as just ‘another airline’. We’re an alternative means of travel. We’re not here to steal market share (although we probably will). We are here to get Canadians out of their cars and off their couches. Check us out. You’ll find you can get to where you need to go. Haven’t thought about flying? Think about it now.”
Tait has a plane to catch. He’s been busy going between BC and AB moving the airline. As he settles into his new home in the Capital City, he’s more than ready for his next adventure in life, and thanks to the low fares on Flair’s roomy airplanes, he’s happy to help Canadians have more adventures, too.