The Feb/Mar issue celebrates the A220 at Air Canada and Harbour Air’s ePlane. We profile Conair and fly the Kodiak 100 amphib. Plus: Imagine being alone in the air!
The ULCC, or ultra-low-cost carrier, is hot stuff. For the average Canadian air traveller though, it’s still a bit of a hazy notion.
Swoop, WestJet’s ULCC subsidiary, sells seats and moves people. With a focus on what the model calls “ancillary” revenue, Swoop offers a la carte services – such as checked bags, for example – that allow travellers to pay for only what they want. If you want more, you pay more. If you don’t, you don’t.
Skies recently sat down with Swoop president and CEO, Steven Greenway, for an update on the airline, which launched in June 2018 with two aircraft.
Swoop was the sixth start-up for the Australian native. Prior stints included CEO of reward-U, the low-cost carrier loyalty/everyday program of HK Express, and chief commercial officer for Scoot, Singapore Airlines’ LCC.
The Swoop fleet has grown to nine B737-800NG aircraft, sourced from corporate parent WestJet. Over two million travellers have been flown and the route map now shows 23 destinations and 46 markets served in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean, with an average of 900 flights per month. While Swoop currently does not serve any Quebec airports, Greenway said that’s just been a matter of bandwidth – and he didn’t rule out such routes in the future.
John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport is the main crew hub and Edmonton International Airport is the western base, with a virtual hub in Abbotsford, B.C.
Greenway is disarmingly frank as he speaks passionately of Swoop and the ULCC model. He frequently uses the buzzword: “Unbundled.”
A ULCC airline charges a low base fare, covering only the seat on the plane, while adding additional fees for everything else. Swoop flies point-to-point without connections and services less-congested, lower-fee secondary airports. You’re unlikely to see Swoop at Toronto Pearson.
Greenway says clearly that the idea isn’t to chase mainline airline customers. Not at all. Rather, there is a relentless focus on the price-sensitive traveller, be they millennials, families, pensioners, and first-time or infrequent flyers.
Have there been bumps and challenges so far? You bet.
Greenway said airlines fail in Canada because they lose control of costs; as well, they must fly longer stage lengths. With 1,200-mile typical stage lengths due to the size of this country, there are only so many times you can go up and down in a day.
Currently, Swoop employs 140 pilots and it, too, is facing the same recruitment and retention challenges as other airlines – in fact, it is one of the few hiring direct-entry captains. Experience requirements are 1,500 hours for first officers and 5,000 hours for the captain’s seat.
The airline says it offers schedules that fit crew availability, with a goal to have flight crew sleeping at home each night. On average, 95 per cent of trips are out and back, and Greenway said crews love it.
With fatigue risk management (FRM) regulations coming into force for Swoop and other Canadian airlines in December of this year, Greenway said Swoop is preparing – but he doesn’t see a tremendous additional impact. In general, he’s familiar with fatigue-related polices, which were already in place at previous airlines where he worked. He said Swoop will be ready and can draw upon the resources of WestJet.
The ULCC is also dealing with the implementation of the new Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), which came into effect just before the end of last year. The regulations set compensation standards for passengers who face delays. If flight cancellations or delays are within the airline’s control and not related to safety, the airline will be required to compensate inconvenienced passengers. Delays resulting from weather or mechanical issues are exempt. Airlines such as Swoop now must seat families together, even if they didn’t get pre-assigned seats.
The media jumped all over Swoop when it introduced a $2.56 passenger surcharge on Jan. 9, which it said was intended to offset costs related to the new passenger rights legislation. Greenway said Swoop’s goal in highlighting that surcharge was simple transparency, and that the amount itself represents the economic cost using the government’s own modelling. He added that after a year, Swoop will review the costs and compensation and adjust the fee as necessary.
Swoop was also in the news over the flight WO651 event with 100 passengers stranded in Cancún earlier this month. Their plane was unable to depart for Hamilton without a full complement of flight attendants, and one had injured her knee on the inbound flight. Greenway said candidly that there is basically little they could have done differently to prepare for circumstances like these – and it’s not possible to keep standby crew in every location you fly to.
But improvements to passenger communication may be another matter. Swoop uses email to send status updates to passengers in a situation like this; Greenway called it the “single point of truth.” In other words, be email-capable if you travel with Swoop.
What lessons has Swoop learned since it began operations? Greenway said that as far as the business goes, if they had it to do it over again, they would perhaps not add as many new routes so quickly.
Moving forward, safety and on-time performance remain key. A spare aircraft is being sought, although the Boeing 737 Max grounding and the associated aircraft shortage doesn’t help the young airline to grow beyond 10 aircraft, or service new secondary airports and cities.