A Quebec charter airline to enter the tourism business

Nolinor Airlines will launch OWG with flights to Cuba, edgy branding and a business model that goes against the norm.

OWG-main

A Quebec charter airline is waiting patiently to get into the tourism travel business.

Nolinor Aviation, which claims to be the country’s biggest player in specialized commercial charter flights and is based in Mirabel, Quebec, unveiled plans on July 7 to launch OWG (short for Off We Go), a new airline brand carrying tourists to unnamed southern destinations.

In a press release, the company said OWG would begin operations “in the coming months,” once the skies had cleared from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on international travel. At the time, president Marco Prud’homme told media outlets that OWG would only become operational “once the market is ready,” whether it was this summer, the fall or even next year.

“Once the rules are clear, we will start flying,” he told the online news site Skies. “We are not in a rush.”

It has since been revealed that OWG has partnered with Canadian travel company Hola Sun Holidays to offer dedicated leisure flights to Cuba – which reopened to international tourists on July 1 – starting on Nov. 1.

The move comes as global demand for air travel remains historically low. Canadians continue to be asked to avoid non-essential travel, and a recent survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found that 72% of Canadians feel uncomfortable travelling since some airlines have decided to relax their physical-distancing requirements. Last week, the International Air Transport Association said global demand is not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2023.

As a 27-year-old, family-run company, Nolinor has specialized in transporting passengers and cargo across the country, including “remote regions where gravel and ice runways are the norm.” During the pandemic, it put that expertise to the service of Food Banks Canada, transporting food, water and personal hygiene products to residents in Nunavut.

The decision to expand into the tourist travel market, where the Canadian tourism marketing industry has shifted towards promoting domestic destinations over international, comes as the company feels the need to diversify, says Marco Prud’homme, president of Nolinor. Currently, 90% of Nolinor business is related to northern mining.

To develop the OWG brand, the company hired a five-person team (which it describes as a “think tank”), spending around $1 million on “trial and errors, brainstorming, R&G and market analysis,” says Prud’homme. The small team analyzed a number of global airlines to establish OWG’s service standards, as well as its brand values and mission.

In interviews, Prud’homme has described one of OWG’s core brand values as being a “high-love airline” that does not take customers for granted. He notes that certain airlines have refused to issue refunds for flights cancelled due to COVID-19, telling strategy that consumers have been critical of the stance. “People are asking for an alternative,” he says. “On top of being an alternative, we are creating a cool brand which should resonate with the younger travellers.”

Over the years, competitors have taken a similar customer-centric, service-first approach. WestJet’s most recent marketing, for example, has reinforced its commitment to service, comparing the typical airline experience to cattle herding, while saying its own airline “treats people like people.”

But Prud’homme contends that OWG will still be able to differentiate on its “high-love” promise. “That’s the secret ingredient we have been using for the last 27 years at Nolinor,” he says. “Hard to copy but the overall reaction is always the same [from customers]: ‘Wish we could fly with you guys to go on vacation.’”

GoldIn December, Nolinor launched Gold, an organic and artisanal blond beer made in partnership with Quebec brewer Boldwin, that is served exclusively to its customers. With branding that pays homage to those who use Nolinor to fly in and out of northern Canadian mining regions, it’s the third beer label created to be served exclusively on board its flights.

Prud’homme declined to say whether OWG will offer the beers or other exclusive products, but said the brand will follow Nolinor’s ethos of going “beyond expectations.”

The flight experience has been a point of contention for many travellers in recent years. A number of ultra-low-cost airline startups, including Jetlines, Flair and WestJet-owned Swoop, have responded with the promise of unbundled, cheaper flights that give customers the option of paying for only the services and perks they want. However, Prud’homme suggests OWG will not compete with these low-cost carriers. He believes that these airlines “know what people want, but they just can’t afford it.”

“[The] current business model is that most airlines are leasing expensive aircraft at a high lease rate,” he says. “They need to cut on every expense to make it worth it and have no bad luck. That’s not a business model, that’s wishful thinking.”

Instead, Nolinor has purchased and refurbished three, older-generation Boeing 737-400s of 158 seats each at a cost of several million dollars, according to the president. “We are buying our aircraft. We own them. Our growth will take more time but that’s alright because we want to still be there in the long run.”

In the past, Hola Sun has worked with Air Transat and Cuba’s national airline, Cubana, on flights departing from Toronto and Montreal. That will also be the case with OWG, with departures from Montreal Trudeau and Toronto Pearson airports.