Ultra low-cost carrier Flair is Canada’s worst airline for complaints, with more than 20 per cent of its flights generating some sort of complaint to the Canadian Transport Agency (CTA), new federal data shows.
While gripes about air travel are not unusual, the CTA, the quasi-judicial body that regulates air transportation, found Flair had the dubious distinction of trailing all other major carriers on customer satisfaction in the first quarter of 2023.
In the January-March period, the CTA received 20.9 complaints for every 100 Flair flights. That compares to 10.7 for WestJet and 5.8 for Air Canada.
Other low-cost carriers — which generally charge less for fares, only to add on ancillary fees for things like seat selection, baggage and live-agent customer service — performed better than Flair despite a similar business model.
Lynx, a fledgling Calgary-based carrier, had 5.2 complaints per 100 flights.
Sunwing, a leisure airline that was recently acquired by WestJet, was the second-worst carrier for complaints after Flair — it generated 17.4 complaints for every 100 flights, said the CTA. Swoop, WestJet’s discount sister brand, was the subject of 16 complaints per 100 flights.
Flair’s poor showing doesn’t come as a surprise to some of its customers.
There’s a dedicated Facebook group — Flair Airlines Nightmares — that has over 10,000 members who trade horror stories about flying with the carrier.
The complaints are different but there’s one common thread: lacklustre or non-existent customer service.
Passengers are often grappling with last-minute flight cancellations, hours-long delays, lost bags and rebooked flights that are days or weeks out from the original date of departure.
Sometimes, Flair has put passengers on planes headed to airports that were not their original destinations.
What’s unique about Flair, passengers say, is its inadequate level of communication.
Third-party contract airport workers are powerless to help with some issues.
Call centre wait times are particularly egregious, passengers claim. Customer complaints are usually handled by email.
Passengers are often directed to an automated chatbot on the airline’s website, a tool disgruntled Flair travellers say is essentially useless.
What’s missing is adequate access to a real person who can actually help solve a problem, Flair customers say.
Ken Elmes was one of those unlucky travellers.
‘The whole thing is a mess’
In an interview with CBC News, Elmes recounted being stranded in Saint John, N.B. His flight from Toronto went off without a hitch — the return was a different story.
The flight home was cancelled at the last minute, he said. Elmes and his wife were automatically rebooked on a flight ten days later.
“We’re like, what? Ten days? I’d never even heard of that. That’s completely unacceptable,” Elmes said.
A trip to the airport didn’t solve their problem — an overworked reservation agent dealing with a group of irate passengers told Elmes she couldn’t change the reservation.
“I feel sorry for their workers — she told us this happens all the time,” he said. “This airline, it’s just not professional at all. The whole thing is a mess.”
After spending hours on hold with Flair’s call centre — and realizing that other airlines were sold out on the Saint John-Toronto route — Elmes rented a one-way car rental and drove across the country to get home rather than wait for Flair to come through.
That set him back a cool $1,500 — many times more than what he paid for the airfare.
Elmes, a retiree on a fixed income, said it was an unnecessary hit to the wallet that still stings seven weeks after he got back.
He said Flair initially offered some compensation — it agreed to $688.68 — only to later renege, claiming it didn’t owe him anything.
“They need to clean up their act. The transport minister, Omar Alghara, he’s got to do something,” Elmes said. “One thing is for sure, I’ll absolutely never fly Flair again.”
While executives from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing were hauled before a House of Commons committee earlier this year to account for the disastrous state of air travel over Christmas, Flair’s leaders weren’t on the witness list.
That’s not because it had a sterling record over the holidays.
In the October-December 2022 period, Flair was second only to Sunwing — which stranded hundreds of passengers in Mexico over the holidays — in terms of complaints to the CTA.
In fact, since the CTA started publishing data, Flair has always been either the first- or second-worst airline for reported complaints.
‘Am I going to be stranded?’
Blane Johnson, a sales representative from Meaford, Ont., has a story to tell about Flair’s mismanagement.
He said his trip to Florida was ruined after a series of flight delays left him and his brother waiting hours at the airport.
They could cope with the nine-hour delay, he said, but the main issue was Flair’s abrupt decision to rebook Kitchener-bound passengers on a Toronto flight with no other option to get out of Orlando.
“They sent me to a completely different city. Toronto — that’s really quite far from Kitchener,” he said. “So, I’m sitting there thinking, am I going to be stranded in Toronto for the night? I’m from the country, I didn’t know if anyone was willing to drive me in the middle of the night.”
Luckily, an Uber was willing to make the trip to the Kitchener airport so he and his brother could pick up their stranded vehicle for the drive back to their final destination on the shores of Lake Huron.
Under air passenger protection regulations, delayed passengers like Johnson are entitled to some compensation.
He said he tried to get Flair to at least cover part of his Uber. He was offered a meagre amount. Now he’s gone to the CTA to fight for more money.
He’ll be waiting a while. The CTA is overwhelmed with complaints from air passengers, with more than 46,000 cases currently in the queue.
The rocky post-COVID restart to air travel prompted an avalanche of complaints, forcing the CTA to warn travellers it will take at least 18 months for a complaint to be reviewed.
‘Not worth the headache’
That’s a timeline that the government itself has said is unacceptable.
“Flair just doesn’t act like a professional organization. I would never fly them again. It’s not worth the headache,” Johnson said.
Vianney Godbout is a Montreal-area real estate agent.
After an enjoyable cruise through Alaska, Godbout was booked to fly home on Flair from Vancouver. There were hours-long delays, he said, but the flight did eventually take off.
Godbout’s problem is that he still hasn’t received his baggage. He said he’s been waiting for more than two weeks.
Godbout didn’t just have clothes and toiletries in that suitcase. The airline has misplaced the CPAP machine he needs to sleep and his pricey MacBook laptop.
Flair has been “useless” and has been giving him the runaround or simply ignoring his requests for a status update, he said.
He said he’s sent more than 25 emails, made countless calls with hours-long wait times and Flair still hasn’t delivered the bag.
“It’s pretty sad,” he told CBC News. “I’ve been promised a call from a superior every single day. I’ve never received a call. We have no clue where that bag is.
“Air Canada, WestJet — they’re not great. But at least I could speak to someone. Flair, they just don’t give a shit. Flair is the worst ever. That was my first and last experience with Flair.”
Flair defended its record in an emailed statement.
Last month, a Flair spokesperson said, the airline flew over 436,000 passengers with 82.1 per cent of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.
“We want every passenger to have a great experience with the airline, and the majority of our passengers do,” a spokesperson for the airline said.
“In the last several months, we have taken concrete steps to improve our responsiveness to customers in our communication channels, and the result is more responsive communications, and faster and successful resolution of customer inquiries.”
Flair has been dogged by controversy since it transitioned in 2019-2020 from a charter and cargo carrier to an airline that runs regularly scheduled passenger flights.
Its ownership structure — U.S. interests own part of the company — has raised eyebrows at the CTA.
Last year, the regulator threatened to pull the airline’s licence before eventually backing down after Flair insisted it’s a Canadian-owned company, as the law requires.
Aircraft lessors have also confiscated some of Flair’s planes after they alleged the Edmonton-based airline missed some payments.
In March, the Ottawa airport cut ties with Menzies, the company that provides airport services for Flair, because it said the service was bad.
The CTA data on Flair and other carriers also doesn’t tell the whole story about the state of customer satisfaction — there are likely many more disgruntled air passengers who haven’t bothered to go to the regulator with a complaint.
The CTA will only accept a complaint after a traveller has tried to resolve their issue directly with the airline. A complainant must wait at least 30 days for the airline to respond before they can ask the CTA to help adjudicate an issue.
“I’m not usually a helpless guy. But with Flair, I felt totally helpless,” Elmes said.
“The government was supposedly going to fix the air passengers bill of rights. That hasn’t done a thing.”
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government announced changes to air passenger rights regulations in April — tweaks meant to make all airlines more accountable.
“Operational decisions of an airline are the airline’s responsibility. That being said, we expect all air carriers, including Flair, to uphold their obligations to keep passengers safe and protect their rights. These new changes to the APPRs will help ensure this is the case,” the spokesperson said.