Rouge customers will adjust to tight squeeze: Air Canada CEO


Tweets by actor Rob Lowe criticizing the legroom on Rouge and poking fun at the “jaunty hats” donned by the crew were obviously not the type of publicity Air Canada was hoping to attract for Rouge, its new low-cost leisure subsidiary that debuted last year.

But the criticism levied on Rouge in social media is not limited to Hollywood celebrities. One recent tweeter lamented that “Flying on the back of a Canada Goose would be more comfortable than Air Canada Rouge.” Again, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new lower cost airline.

With the tough reviews mounting, an analyst recently queried Air Canadaʼs management about the negative comments passengers were making about tight legroom on Rouge. Here is what CEO Calin Rovinescu had to say: “This product is coming into the market at a time when some level of adjustment in customer expectations is occurring.”

He explained that the carrier now needs to manage customer expectations regarding a leisure product, noting “leisure carriers have tighter pitch”. Rovinescu added that he believes traveler reception will improve over time.

With terms like “low-cost carrier”, “ultra low-cost carrier” and “hybrid” all used to describe airlines similar to Rouge, it is no wonder customers have a tough time determining what to expect on their journeys.

Rougeʼs Airbus A319s offer a seat pitch of 35 inches in the ‘Premium Rouge’ section (12 economy class seats configured 2 X 2), 35 inches for ‘Rouge Plus’ (a single row of economy class seats configured 3 X 3), and a meager 29 inches in standard economy, which is tighter than economy class seats on Air Canadaʼs main domestic rival WestJet.

WestJetʼs newly reconfigured Boeing 737s offer 31 inches to 32 inches of seat pitch in economy class. An enhanced legroom section offers a 36-inch pitch, according to the carrier.

Compared to ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines, Rouge offers more legroom in its narrowbodies. SeatGuru lists Spiritʼs economy seat pitch at a super snug 28 inches. But this is not an aberration. As we saw at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, numerous seat manufacturers are now flogging seat designs that can be pitched at 28 inches, including Acro, Recaro and Zodiac (and some at even 27 inches!)

Even as Rouge gets heat for its tight squeeze, the reality is that Rob Lowe and other passengers will need to get used to the fact that airlines across all ends of the spectrum are adding seats to improve their respective unit costs. Air Canada has been championing its decision to opt for high-density configurations of its new Boeing 777-300ERs and Boeing 787s, and the carrier intends to add seats on existing 777s to drive down unit costs.

As mentioned, WestJet re-pitched its seats to a tighter configuration. Across the border, American Airlines is bolstering seat count on its MD-80s, 737s and 777s. A narrowbody makeover announced by Delta in January will see the US major add more seats.

Rougeʼs A319s are configured with 136 seats versus a total 120 seats at Air Canada mainline. The leisure carrierʼs 767 widebodies feature 280 seats compared with 211 on the Air Canada 767 mainline jets. Air Canada previously estimated that unit costs on Rougeʼs A319s will be 21% lower than mainline, with the unit cost differential at 29% for Rougeʼs 767s versus mainline.

Essentially what this means is the unit cost advantages of denser aircraft are too favorable to pass up, which means tight quarters in economy class cabins are likely here to stay.

But perhaps the most compelling question triggered by Rougeʼs spate of negative publicity is why Rob Lowe was flying on a leisure carrier to start with? (He also was reportedly seated in the Premium Rouge section). Surely he has the means to travel with an airline where he can “turn left” to first class when boarding, or take a private jet and find something else to tweet about.

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  1. Joseph N.

    Great article until the last paragraph. The last paragraph was completely unnecessary. Instead of complaining that Richie Rich acted like a commoner, how about a paragraph applauding Mr. Lowe for pinching his pennies, instead of acting like a Hollywood brat.

  2. Alan R.

    What more than likely happened is that Rob Lowe got “Rouged”, a term used to describe the experience when AC converts a route previously operated by the mainline carrier to a Rouge route. There have been numerous complaints of this happening, customer book the mainline, sometimes months in advance of the flight only to find out that it’s been switched to the “leisure” carrier. AC has a huge PR problem to overcome and many are predicting a Rouge will go the way of Tango or Zip, their previous low cost attempts.

  3. I totally agree with Joseph N. that by having Rob LOWE complain about the comfort it at least grabs the attention of the AC heavies. Do you reaLABOUT THE COMFORT AT LEAST Y

  4. Norm

    To Air Canada’s CEO , we shall adjust alright by flying other airlines! Bye bye was a loyal AC customer but no longer if this is how they treat it’s customers.

  5. Geoff Thomas

    I have just been recently “Rouged” and agree with Norm. I will be adjusting by no longer flying Air Canada after 13 years of flying the same route with AC an average of 4 times per year. YYZ- SAN-YYZ. The claim this is a low cost alternative is laughable. The only non stop AC flight on this route is a Rouge operated flight, so there is no option of flying Air Canada mainline even if you wanted to. And since the Rouge flights began there has been absolutely no change in the fare. Based on the empty seats on my first and last Rouge flight I would hazard a guess that the higher seat capacity is being adversely affected by the number of passengers opting for a more civilized travel experience. 8″ from the front of your seat cushion to the back of the seat in front of you is torture if you are over 5’8″ tall. Perhaps saner heads will prevail and the AC brain trust will not have Rouge as the only choice on existing profitable routes. One can only hope.

  6. There is a limit to what passenger are willing to accept and airlines should be aware of that. Judging by the fares Rouge is NOT a low cost airline so it´s normal for passengers to complain. Air Canada should reconsider it s stratège or will l’Oise ma y mainline customers.

  7. John

    How can they say “customers will adjust”? Economy seats were hardly built for comfort to begin with. If they want to save money, they should start by reconsidering Rovinescu’s compensation package as well as his corporate buddies. Then, perhaps they can stop putting up their pilots in 4 and 5 star hotels overnight. I see pilots and staff staying in some pretty nice hotels (which don’t appear to be airport hotels), and have heard stories about a coach or limo being sent to pick up a single pilot. A clean but bare bones hotel/motel is all they should need. Multi-day layovers should also be limited or eliminated. I see pilots taking extensive tours of the places they have landed; they should get 3 hours to get to a hotel, have a meal, shower, 8 hours to sleep, and an other 3 hours to get ready, and send them off! Then maybe give them a day or two of rest at home between each flight. Pilots should not be living it up having mini vacations while 6’4″ passengers are squeezed into 28″ pitch seats and are forced to pay to bring on a bag with the bare necessities. Also, you could get rid of employee perks, there are plenty professions where it’s simply not possible to get hundreds of dollars of product for free out of your employer.

    If you need to cut costs, don’t start with your paying customers. Average sized people may adapt over time depending on how far you take this, but there is a large segment of the population that is over 6′ tall, and you have had the gal to tell them. If you’re uncomfortable, then maybe you should be richer!

  8. AC rouge is NOT a low-cost carrier, but it certainly is a no-frills carrier. It provides you with a sore back, stiff legs, bruised knees and a very cozy connection to the stranger sitting beside you. The cabin staff seem very inexperienced although they do try to be helpful. I don’t quite understand the CEO’s remark that “people will adjust their expectations.” I am 5’8″ tall and I really don’t think my legs are going to shrink in length anytime soon. After paying for a seat, I expect to be able to physically sit in it. I also expect the plane to not “run out of food”. I have been “rouged” twice and am appalled that Air Canada is now offering this no- service flight on international routes also. What a way to ruin its reputation !

  9. myself

    If there’s a limit to what passengers will accept then they will have to realize there’s a limit to what airlines can afford based on what you guys the passengers will pay. Cost of flying now is less than or equal to what it was 20 year ago, however the cost of operating an airline has certainly not stagnated or gone down. Because AC is not a carrier that skimps on maintenance or safety, you will lose your comfort. Clearly people who have never flow low cost carriers out of the US. That’s no fun whatsoever (see above’s comments on Spirit airlines seating pitch). Jut a fact of life. And as for the jaunty little hats, I guess Rob Lowe hasn’t flown Porter or Qatar etc who also do the same. Personally I think they’re kinda cute, if i had to wear a uniform to do my job, I think theirs is quite nice!

  10. Mike montreal

    I also got rouged and it will be the last time. If the CEO think i will get used to high price and lousy service and feeling squezze… He can needs a lobotomy and fast !