June 24th, 2024

Flair Airlines CEO to retire from low-cost carrier this summer

By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press on June 4, 2024.

Flair Airlines chief executive Stephen Jones will be stepping down this summer after more than three-and-a-half years at the helm of the discount carrier. Jones speaks with employees aboard on one of the company's Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft after the airline announced their sustainability initiatives, in Richmond, B.C., Wednesday, April 17, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Flair Airlines chief executive Stephen Jones will be stepping down this summer after nearly four years at the helm of the discount carrier.

The CEO’s tenure spanned a turbulent period for the seven-year-old company as the airline expanded its fleet but also hit financial headwinds amid stiff competition.

Flair said Tuesday a recruitment process for a replacement is underway and that chief operating officer Maciej Wilk was named interim CEO until the board selects a successor. Jones is set to retire June 28, he said.

The Edmonton-based airline’s 20-plane fleet will “continue operating normally” during the transition, the company said, even as some hurdles from the past 18 months remain.

In a phone interview from Toronto, Jones said he felt ready to retire and faced “no pressure to move on.”

“I’m just at an age and stage in my life that I want to achieve some other goals,” said Jones, who turns 63 in a couple of weeks. “I’ve been working pretty much non-stop for 40 years – and some pretty tough jobs.”

With a CV that includes a spell at budget carrier Wizz Air in Hungary and a nearly dozen-year stint at Air New Zealand, Jones took the reins at Flair barely six months after COVID-19 kicked off, confronting the daunting task of leading an airline when global travel was largely shut down.

Flair was reduced to one active plane by April 2021 as it scrapped nearly all its routes amid the ongoing pandemic. The chief executive vastly expanded its stock of leased planes within a couple years, but has also encountered his share of obstacles.

Jones sounded alarm bells over what Flair claimed were intentional efforts by bigger rivals to stifle its growth by launching routes parallel to Flair’s and then dropping them as soon as the budget carrier left the market.

In March 2023, a Dublin-based leasing company seized four Boeing 737 Maxes – more than a fifth of its fleet – over claims that Flair repeatedly defaulted on its payments, prompting multiple flight cancellations. At the time, Jones said the airline was only “a few days in arrears” with about $1 million owing on the jetliners.

Earlier this year, Jones suspended expansion plans as the carrier contended with plane delivery delays and hefty debts, including $67 million in unpaid federal taxes related to import duties on its jets as of November. The payment plan remains “on track,” he said Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Jones believes things are looking up for the feisty airline.

He pointed to the carrier’s 98-per-cent flight completion rate – the proportion of flights not cancelled or diverted – and second-best on-time performance record among major Canadian airlines last year.

“The revenue environment is much, much stronger in the summer ahead than it has been in the prior years,” he said, minutes after a virtual town hall with some 300 of the company’s 1,250 employees.

“The business is in good shape and I assured them that it’s actually in the best shape that I’ve ever seen it.”

He declined to state whether the carrier would turn a profit this year, noting that its finances are private.

Jones also renewed his repeated demands over the past few years for an industry overhaul. He called on the government to enable more Canadians to fly by tamping down costs for airlines through reforms that would open the gate to lower airport fees and a higher ownership threshold for foreign players. The current ceiling is 49 per cent, with no one company allowed to control more than 25 per cent. (Miami-based 777 Partners and affiliates own about a quarter of Flair Airlines.)

“You’re getting Canadians trapped on the couch because it’s an expensive system now,” he said.

Jones, who hails from New Zealand, said he hopes to spend more time sailing and visiting his daughters “in different parts of the world” over the coming years.

“I love Canada,” he said. “I really enjoy living in Vancouver, so I’ll be still spending a lot of my time here.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

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