The skies have become more crowded as the number of low-cost airlines in the Canadian market has grown. The new entrants are adding much-needed competition since they launched over the past few years, but they come with risks. The savings can be hefty, but is it worth it?
You probably expect to pay extra fees for checked baggage and seat selection, but the list of additional charges with these carriers is long. Prefer to check in at the airport desk rather than online? It’ll cost you. Carry-on luggage will be extra, and so will a bottle of water on the plane. Passengers should figure out exactly what they need when booking, as adding items later can lead to an even higher fee. “It’s no frills,” says Winnipeg resident Ariel Alcantara, who flew on Lynx Air last summer, and is currently exploring Asia on low-cost airlines. “It’s like riding a bus.”
Kirsten McGhie, a theatre employee in Vancouver, faced unexpected fees at the Flair Airlines counter on her August flight to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., and her travel companion had to stuff three pairs of shoes into his sweater to avoid an overweight bag charge. Still, she has no regrets. “With luggage it ended up being around $700 for two people, return. The value is outrageous. If the deal is good, I’ll put up with a little bit of extra stress.”
Low-cost carriers cram in more seats to increase profitability, which means you’ll probably have less legroom. A traditional airline will often have a seat pitch – the distance between a point on your seat and the one in front or behind it – of 31 to 32 inches, whereas a low-cost airline is typically around 29 inches.
Flair, Swoop draw most per-flight passenger complaints of Canadian airlines, CTA says
In terms of safety, the low-cost carriers have to meet the same standards as regular airlines, so this shouldn’t be a big concern. Cancellation rates are low when compared with full-service airlines, but the problem is when things go wrong, the discount carriers don’t have the same resources to deal with them. It can be difficult to get help from airline staff, and the next plane to your destination might not leave for two days. “When an airplane gets diverted due to weather, there’s a delay, or there’s a mechanical problem, that’s when you will probably see a more noticeable difference between a discount airline and a full-fare competitor,” says aviation consultant Mike Doiron.
North Carolina-based legal assistant Howard Fan had an exhausting trip from Baltimore to London’s Stansted airport last spring on Play Airlines when a delay led to him missing his connecting flight in Reykjavik. The situation at the airport was chaotic, he says. Play’s online customer service was closed for the night and passengers didn’t realize they needed to book their own hotels. It took an extra day to get to London, and despite submitting his hotel reimbursement claim (as per EU regulations) immediately, Fan is still waiting nine months later.
When considering an airline, look at the size of its aircraft fleet and the age of the planes. Tiny airlines are more likely to have trouble rebooking passengers because of reduced capacity and could face an increased risk of bankruptcy, leaving passengers stranded. “They need to have a certain critical mass to be reliable,” says John Korenic, an adjunct professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business and a former vice-president at Canada Jetlines. “Will all the new carriers survive over the next couple of years? It’s a real question mark.”
Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, the compensation paid to customers for delays is lower for small airlines, although some travel insurance will reimburse passengers for unexpected hotel room nights and other related costs.
The bottom line? You can get some amazing deals on low-cost carriers, but not every trip is worth the additional risk. If it’s a routine trip back home to visit family, the savings could be worth it, but if you have a starring role in a once-in-a-lifetime destination wedding, shell out for the premium service.
The new crop of low-cost carriers
This Mississauga-based airline launched in September and serves Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Cancun and Orlando, Fla.
Sample price: $290 for a return trip from Toronto to Vancouver in May with one carry-on bag.
Fleet: Two planes, average age 11 years. Five more planes are expected to be added to the fleet this year.
Seat pitch: 30 to 31 inches; seats can recline three inches
Launched in 2017, this Edmonton-based airline flies to more than 35 North American destinations.
Sample price: $364 for a return trip from Toronto to Vancouver in May with one carry-on bag.
Fleet: Twenty planes, average age 4.7 years. The airline plans to fly 50 aircraft by 2025.
Percentage of flights cancelled: 5.6 per cent
Seat pitch: 29 inches, the seats can’t recline
Formerly known as Enerjet, this Calgary-based airline relaunched in April, 2022. It currently has 14 North American destinations.
Sample price: $280 for a return trip from Toronto to Vancouver in May with one carry-on bag.
Fleet: Six planes, average age 2.7 years, with three more on order for this year.
Percentage of flights cancelled: 0.1 per cent
Seat pitch: 30 inches; the seats can’t recline
This Icelandic airline is already operating flights between the U.S. and Europe via Reykjavik. In June, it will start operating flights from Hamilton to Europe via Reykjavik.
Sample price: $1,216 for a return trip from Hamilton, to London Stansted in July with one carry-on bag.
Fleet: Eight planes plus two on order, average age 2.5 years
Percentage of flights cancelled: 2.7 per cent
Seat pitch: 28 to 35 inches; seats can recline 3 to 4 inches
A Calgary-based discount airline owned by WestJet, it launched in 2018. It services 12 Canadian and five American destinations, as well as eight in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Sample price: $289 for a return trip from Toronto to Abbotsford, B.C., in May with one carry-on bag.
Fleet: Sixteen planes, average age 5.9 years
Percentage of flights cancelled: 2.6 per cent
Seat pitch: 29 to 30 inches; seats can recline 2 to 3 inches
Sources: Cirium; SeatMaps.com. Cancellation data shows the flights cancelled within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time between November, 2022, and January, 2023. Cancellation data wasn’t available for all airlines.
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