The coronavirus pandemic has proved a double-edged sword for airlines. While many carriers have faced the toughest challenges in their history, others are using those same struggles as an opportunity to expand — or start an entirely new airline.
The list of new startups in just the U.S. alone keeps growing. After a decade of little new competition, Avelo Airlines will begin flights at the Burbank airport in Southern California on April 28; David Neeleman’s latest venture Breeze Airways plans to launch soon after; and now Connect Airways has joined the list with a launch targeted for October.
Owned by Massachusetts-based Waltzing Matilda Aviation, Connect plans to connect Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport with major U.S. Midwestern and East Coast cities. It has lease agreements in place for two de Havilland Dash 8-400 turboprops and plans to expand its fleet to five aircraft following its launch. And on the certification front, Waltzing Matilda is in the process of converting its FAA Part 135 certification — the company has flown private charters since 2008 — to Part 121, which would allow it to operate scheduled commercial flights.
“We’re trying to ride the wave of the recovery,” Waltzing Matilda CEO John Thomas told Airline Weekly. “There’s a quiet confidence, certainly in the U.S. market, more than some people give credit to.”
Among reasons to start an airline now include the availability of cheap, abundant aircraft. To cite one example, more than 50 Dash 8-400s are now available that were formerly flown by Flybe before it became the first airline Covid-19 casualty in March 2020. Talent is available from the ranks of former airline employees either furloughed or laid off during the downturn. And lower traffic levels that have opened slots and facilities at otherwise busy airports to new entrants, including at Connect’s planned Billy Bishop base.
A spokesperson for Billy Bishop operator PortsToronto said the airport has slots available and would “welcome” new competition.
But the curious thing about Connect is not its plan to ride the recovery, or even the fact that it is a U.S. company planning a base in Canada’s largest city. It is the fact that there is — or maybe was — already a Dash 8-400 operator connecting Billy Bishop to major eastern U.S. cities: Porter Airlines.
“Porter has done a nice job serving the market there, but we think we can do a better job serving the U.S.,” said Thomas. He added that Porter does well connecting Billy Bishop to points in Canada — something Connect cannot do as a foreign carrier — than flying to the U.S.
What he did not say was that Porter has been grounded since March 2020, when it suspended flights during the early days of the crisis. Amid questions over whether it will ever resume flights, the Toronto-based carrier recently pushed its planned restart to June 21 — the umpteenth postponement in the what has become something of the ultimate rolling delay.
“We are looking ahead to summer and preparing for the possibility of some travel restrictions unwinding,” Porter CEO Michael Deluce said in a statement Monday citing the possibility of eased travel restrictions. “We will begin the process of rebuilding our operations as soon as conditions allow based on government decisions.”
The U.S.-Canadian border has been closed to most travelers since early in the pandemic.
There is also the fact that Thomas, a former Virgin Australia executive, briefly sat on the advisory board of Billy Bishop terminal operator Nieuport Aviation for six months in 2018 and 2019. This has raised questions among some whether he has an inside understanding on operating an airline base at the airport.
Asked about his involvement with Nieuport, Thomas said he does not believe it raises any concerns given his brief tenure and the more than two-years since he left the board.
Whether or not Porter returns to the skies, Thomas thinks Connect can do a better job moving U.S. travelers — particularly ones with strong frequent flyer loyalty — to Billy Bishop. The start-up is in talks with major U.S. carriers regarding loyalty and codeshare partnerships, he said without naming names.
It is no secret that Porter’s relationships south-of-the-border were limited. Its only U.S. partner is JetBlue Airways, though the pact did not include a codeshare or reciprocal frequent flyer benefits. Connect’s strategy appears to be a closer tie-up with a major U.S. carrier than the one between JetBlue and Porter — something that would likely include both a codeshare and loyalty benefits.
Thomas was also mum on Connect’s first destinations. They will depend on what slots the start-up can secure at Billy Bishop, he said. However, Thomas added that there is potential for service to up to 25 U.S. cities within roughly 700 miles from Toronto — for example Charlotte, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Nashville.
But Connect has a lot to do before it can apply for slots. It first needs to complete the conversion of its FAA certificate to Part 121 a process that began in December, and then Transport Canada must authorize it to serve the country. Only after that can it officially approach PortsToronto.
The venture is currently self-funded by Waltzing Matilda’s existing private charter business. However, Thomas said it is in the process of attracting outside investors.
“We’re well on track,” he said.