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Former Virgin Australia executive heads new US airline startup

Analysis

Former Virgin Australia Group Executive, and Global Head of Aviation Practice for L.E.K. Consulting, John Thomas, is preparing to launch a short haul airline, Connect Airlines, in the US, adding yet another aviation venture to his lengthy industry C.V.

Mr Thomas told the Sep-2021 CAPA Live event that, subject to regulatory approvals in the US and Canada, Connect Airlines would take off by the end of this year, initially linking the northeast US gateways of Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia with Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto, Canada, using two De-Havilland Dash 8-400 (Q400) turboprop aircraft.

He also revealed that the airline was targeting “total elimination” of carbon emissions by 2026, and highlighted the work of Los Angeles-based Universal Hydrogen, which is developing a programme to retrofit turboprop aircraft with new hydrogen-electric propulsion systems and is converting a Dash 8-300 as a testbed.

Summary

  • Former Virgin Australia Group Executive John Thomas is launching a new short haul airline in the US.
  • Subject to US and Canadian regulatory approval, Connect Airlines will initially link Chicago O’Hare and Pittsburgh with Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop Airport.
  • Connect, a brand of Mr Thomas’s Boston-based Waltzing Matilda Airlines, will launch with two De Havilland Q400 aircraft and has signed letters of intent to acquire three more in 2022.
  • The airline is closely watching a program by Universal Hydrogen to convert turboprops to hydrogen propulsion.

Beyond its initial Toronto routes, Connect Airlines is exploring a broader US domestic network

Connect Airlines is a brand of Waltzing Matilda Airlines, an existing jet charter operator based in Boston, Mass., of which Mr Thomas, an Australian, has been CEO since the WMA was established in 2008.

He is also a board member of Icelandair and of the Canadian corporate aviation group Sky Service Investments Inc, and an advisor to Spike Aerospace, which is planning to produce supersonic business jets.

Mr Thomas is buoyant about his latest aviation venture, which will focus on travel by the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) market between Toronto and a growing network in the US.

Billy Bishop Downtown Airport is in the heart of Toronto, the fourth-largest airline market in North America,” he said. 

“As a US carrier, our initial focus is to bring more US trans-border flights to Billy Bishop Airport, as well as to provide Toronto passengers with extensive US and global networks that they will be able to access over our US stations. Given the attractiveness of the US-Canada market, we see this initial route structure as an excellent springboard into a broader US domestic network.”

De Havilland Q400 conversion provides “a reliable and certain path to zero emissions”

The first two Q400 aircraft, which were the last two operated by the former UK regional airline FlyBe, have been leased to Waltzing Matilda by Canada-Based Chorus Aviation Capital, with the first scheduled for delivery this month and the second in November. Letters of intent have also been signed for another three Q400s to be delivered in 2022.

Mr Thomas told CAPALive, whose Sep-2021 event was focused on sustainable aviation, that the Q400 was perfect for Connect Airlines’ missions, and that the type’s carbon emissions were 40 per cent lower than those of similar-size regional jets – and he didn’t stop there.   

“The Q400 also provides the most reliable and certain path to zero emissions with the work currently being undertaken by Universal Hydrogen to change the power system on the Dash 8 series of aircraft”, he said.

Universal is converting a Dash 8-300 aircraft to become a test platform for hydrogen propulsion, with the fuel transported to airports in special capsules instead of relying upon construction of dedicated airport infrastructure.

Mr Thomas said: “Part of our core business model is a 60% reduction in carbon emissions today, and a total elimination [of carbon emissions] in five years’ time, which we think is a real game changer for the industry, that frankly has struggled to come up with a credible and meaningful environmental response. And all of this at much better economics.”  

Connect Airlines foreshadows a resurgence of turboprop operations in the US

Mr Thomas said the Q400 was perfect for the missions planned by Connect Airlines and foreshadowed a return to favour of turboprop aircraft in the US, following a significant downturn, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the US, pre-Covid, there were something like 165 million passengers per year that flew on sectors less than 400 nautical miles, where the economics of the Q400 are far superior to regional jets,” he said. 

“Other than Horizon Airlines in the Pacific north-west, and Silver in the south-east, the US has lost the benefits of turboprop flying. Given the significant environmental benefits of turboprops over regional jets, we believe that there is going to be a real resurgence in the use of turbo in the US domestic market, and that’s really what our strategy is.”

Watch the full video from CAPA Live September: Launching an airline in a pandemic:

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