Flair Airlines Ltd. has the highest number of complaints per 100 flights of all the major airlines in Canada, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency, as airlines have had a rocky recovery year with delayed and cancelled flights.
Between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023, Flair saw an average of 15.3 complaints per 100 flights according to the report published in late April.
Sunwing Airlines Inc. came second at 13.8 complaints per 100 flights, and Swoop Inc. was third at 13.2. Meanwhile, WestJet had 6.6 complaints per 100 flights, Air Canada had 4.3 and Air Transat averaged 3.3 complaints.
Flair saw four of its leased planes seized in March because of overdue payments, causing hundreds of cancelled flights.
John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University’s aviation management program, theorized that the debacle for Flair was a symptom of cash flow issues at the airline. He said Flair had overcommitted itself and passengers were complaining about issues related to compensation.
This dealt a blow to the airline’s reputation, he said. However, as demand has crept up, Gradek said Flair is charging higher fares and therefore is likely generating more revenue.
“Their cash position has improved significantly,” he said.
“They're now able to address any compensation claims that are being made by passengers, whether it's for bags or whether it's for delayed flights or cancelled flights.”
Flair CEO Stephen Jones said in a statement that the airline acknowledges its past customer service performance, and has made significant investments resulting in immediate and noticeable improvement, including investments in contact centre staff and managing customer complaints through the Better Business Bureau.
The airline's investments in contact centre staff include a dedicated team in Montreal specifically focused on handling CTA complaints, said Jones, and cases are now being resolved within a week, when in 2022 they would take three months.
"These recent developments demonstrate Flair's dedication to improving our customer service and addressing past shortcomings," said Jones.
He also said that in May more than 82 per cent of the airline's flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
As demand for air travel has soared in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have at times struggled to keep up and the past year has seen headlines about cancellations, delays and chaotic airports.
According to the CTA, the average number of complaints was lower for all the major airlines for the first three-month period of its report from April to June 2022, with Air Canada seeing an average of one complaint per 100 flights, Flair seeing 9.3, Swoop seeing 6.7 and WestJet seeing 3.9.
However, as the summer travel season began last year, the airlines tended to see complaints rise. During the peak July through September summer travel season last year, Swoop jumped to 18.5 complaints per 100 flights to have the highest of all airlines, while during the October through December stretch Sunwing was the worst with 20.7 complaints per 100 flights.
Flair peaked at 20.9 between in the January to March 2023 period when it saw its planes seized, while WestJet also peaked at 10.7 during the same period. Swoop and Air Canada both peaked between July and September last year, at 18.5 and 6.3, respectively.
Sunwing’s higher complaints levels over the winter likely stem from the disruptions the airline saw during that time period, Gradek said.
The biggest airlines tended to have the highest number of total passenger complaints, even though the smaller ones are seeing higher averages per 100 flights. In the CTA's report for 2021-2022, Air Canada saw 3,245 complaints and WestJet had 3,288, while Flair had 239 and Sunwing 884.
Gradek said there’s stiff competition between Canada’s discount carriers, but there may not be room in the market for all of them.
“There is a place for discount carriers, no doubt about it,” he said. But Gradek said the real test is not how they fare during peak times, but how they do when demand is lower.
“Will they have enough cash in the bank to survive the fall?” he said. “And will they have enough cash to transition to Christmas?”
Air Canada and WestJet have also both seen recent turbulence, albeit after the CTA report’s timeline.
Air Canada cancelled and delayed flights beginning last Thursday due to technical problems, while WestJet narrowly avoided a pilot strike over the May long weekend but still had to cancel a number of flights.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.