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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