Jim Scott launches an airline for Canadians shut out by high fares
By Pete Murray
When Jim Scott was flying 747s around Asia for Cathay Pacific early in his career, his mission was to get passengers from one airport to another safely and on time. Fast-forward to 2017 and the 56-year-old executive is back in the captain’s seat on his biggest mission yet: bring affordable airfare to Canadians who currently have no travel options to fit their budget.
“I look at some of the airfares in Canada and I wonder how people can pay them,” says Scott, Chief Executive Officer at Canada Jetlines, which will take to the air as Canada’s only ultra low-cost carrier (ULCC) in the next year. “The answer is that many of them can’t, and so they don’t fly. ULCC’s have solved this problem in many other countries and Canada is next. We are the only G7 country without a ULCC in operation.”
Scott’s experience in aviation, which began at age 18 when he purchased his own plane using money earned as a welder, is fundamental to his role as the head of a start-up airline. His rapid ascent up the industry ladder reflects a drive to succeed that still comes through loud and clear when sitting down with him today.
From that first Cessna 150, it was fewer than 10 years before Scott was an airline captain in Paris, and shortly thereafter was piloting Boeing 747s on the daunting approach into the infamous Hong Kong International Airport, Kai Tak. “Maneuvering a speeding apartment building with wings through a corridor of stationary apartment buildings,” is how Scott describes it.
YouTube is filled with videos of planes landing at Kai Tak prior to its closure in 1998, when a new airport was opened in a safer location 30 kilometres away. They are hair-raising to say the least, but for Scott and his colleagues it was just another day at the office.
Just as important for Scott as he steers the new airline toward its first flight is a proven ability to understand what motivates different members of a team and unite them in pursuit of a common objective.
“When managing an airline, you have to keep top of mind that it is a company whose most important people never report to work at the office,” Scott explains. “A lot of building Canada Jetlines to this point has been reflecting upon what it takes to inspire employees in roles I have actually been in myself.”
Some of the roles Scott refers to were encountered during his many years as a commercial pilot for airlines in Canada, Europe and the Far East. Others he was chosen for owing to his ability to get inside organizations and make them change for the better.
Those latter skills were on full display in 2008 when Scott was tapped for a two-year assignment as senior security planner for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
“Leading up to the Olympics, I probably had to deal with 1,000 people, and all of the different groups thought they were the boss if an emergency event were to happen,” says Scott. “Even though I did not have explicit authority over them, it was my job to convince police, firefighters, federal agencies and other groups to follow one direction.”
Scott was known in security circles because although his career has been weighted toward aviation, he also worked for the Vancouver Police Department. Roles with the Department included overseeing and revamping the 911 emergency response system and supervising the Financial Crimes Unit.
All the while, Scott was assisting Transport Canada with pilot examinations, conducting around 50 private, commercial and multi-engine tests per year. He maintains a similar testing schedule to this day.
While earning his Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree at the University of the Fraser Valley, Scott supervised an Air Transportation study in 2006 that highlighted WestJet’s decision to leave the discount carrier space and go head-to-head with Air Canada, shadowing the legacy carrier with hubs in Toronto and Calgary.
That study found its way to government officials in British Columbia and in 2012 they contacted Scott to discuss what could be done. “The government felt the province was suffering from a lack of reasonably priced flights to smaller but important regional airports,” Scott recalls. “I sensed an opportunity, recruited some key people, and we established Canada Jetlines.”
Scott says the years since Canada Jetlines was incorporated have been exactly as anticipated: both very challenging and very rewarding. From convincing governments at all levels that Canada Jetlines can revive a neglected passenger segment without undermining Air Canada and Westjet, to getting members of the financial community onside, the successes are piling up and the young airline is starting to gain momentum.
“If there is anything that has been driven home the last few years it is the difference between entrepreneurs and the rest of the players in the business world,” Scott explains. “Entrepreneurs are people who take ownership of a venture and move it through the necessary phases despite any setback. The senior management team at Canada Jetlines are all equity investors with skin in the game. Just like other airlines when they were in their early stages, our people have a special mindset.”
During what spare time exists in a Jim Scott schedule, philanthropy often takes top billing. Whether building houses in Cambodia or providing wheelchairs to people with mobility impairments in Mexico, Scott does not hesitate to help those in need.
“I do have a passion for helping others,” says Scott, who also set up a program to assist disabled Canadian soldiers in 2011. “I keep seeing gaps and have this need to fill them.”
The Canadian Jetlines model suggests lowering airfares an average of 40% will result in 10 million additional passengers flying in Canada each year, an increase in overall market size of approximately 10%. By flying between secondary airports, among other measures, the new airline avoids directly competing with the domestic majors, keeps it costs low and provides convenience that currently does not exist.
“Canada’s air travel landscape has routes and fare categories that if served consistently can make life better for travelers and communities across the country,” Scott concludes. “And because the ULCC business model has worked well in the US, Europe, Asia and other markets, investors can see that an airline run properly in this sector delivers good returns. Everyone wins with this venture, and that’s why I’m in.”