CEO of Flair Airlines will retire from the low-cost carrier this summer

Flair Airlines CEO Stephen Jones will step down this summer after nearly four years at the helm of the discount airline.

Flair Airlines CEO Stephen Jones will step down this summer after nearly four years at the helm of the discount airline.

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

Flair said Tuesday that a hiring process for a replacement is underway and that Chief Operating Officer Maciej Wilk has been named interim CEO until the board chooses a successor. Jones will retire June 28, he said.

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

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

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

With a resume that includes a stint at budget airline Wizz Air in Hungary and a nearly twelve-year stint at Air New Zealand, Jones took over the reins at Flair just six months after the start of COVID-19, where he was given the daunting task to run an airline. when global travel was largely shut down.

Flair was reduced to one active aircraft in April 2021 as it canceled nearly all of its routes during the ongoing pandemic. The CEO vastly expanded his inventory of leased aircraft within a few years, but also encountered a number of obstacles.

Jones sounded the alarm about what Flair claimed were deliberate attempts by larger rivals to stifle growth by launching routes parallel to Flair’s and then dropping them once the budget carrier exited 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 had repeatedly defaulted on its payments, leading to multiple flight cancellations. At the time, Jones said the airline was only “a few days behind” and owed about $1 million on the jets.

Earlier this year, Jones suspended expansion plans as the airline faced aircraft delivery delays and significant debt, including $67 million in unpaid federal taxes related to tariffs on its planes starting in November. The payment plan remains “on track,” he said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Jones believes things are going well for the feisty airline.

He pointed to the airline’s 98 percent completion rate — the percentage of flights that were not canceled or diverted — and the second-best on-time performance record among major Canadian airlines last year.

“The revenue environment this coming summer is much, much stronger than in previous years,” he said minutes after a virtual town hall with about 300 of the company’s 1,250 employees.

“The company is in good shape and I have assured them it is in the best condition I have ever seen.”

He declined to say whether the airline would make a profit this year, noting its finances are private.

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

“You’re keeping Canadians on the bench because it’s an expensive system now,” he said.

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

“I love Canada,” he said. “I really enjoy living in Vancouver, so I will still spend a lot of time here.”

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

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press