The president and founder of Montreal-based Jetsgo, which carved out about ten percent market share during its two-and-a-half years of operations while simultaneously racking up tens of millions of dollars in losses, hasn't given up on returning to the hyper-competitive Canadian skies.
Despite the recent bankruptcy of the discount carrier, which left 17,000 irate passengers having to find alternate means home just before Easter and 1,200 employees suddenly without jobs, Leblanc reportedly wants to start up a charter airline before the end of the year with eight of his former planes.
Will it fly? Canadians are so eager to save a buck when it comes to airline tickets, the amount of damage inflicted upon an entrepreneur's corporate brand and personal reputation can be quickly forgotten, a pair of experts say.
After all, Leblanc has done it before. Prior to launching Jetsgo in 2002, his two previous ventures, Intair and Royal Airlines, failed to make it on their own. After selling Royal to Canada 3000 in 2001, Leblanc became a senior executive with that company, which itself went bankrupt late that year. Subsequently, there were allegations that Leblanc had portrayed a much rosier financial situation at Royal than turned out to be the case.
Ricardo Pilon, a professor of airline management and marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, says passengers are all-too-ready to exchange inconveniences, such as fare restrictions, remotely located airports, less legroom and minimal services, for "el cheapo" fares.
"Whether they loved the (Jetsgo) experience or hated it, a considerable proportion of them would be very inclined to purchase Jetsgo tickets again, with perhaps the condition that they are not purchased too far in advance," Pilon says.
Robert Warren, director of the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, says even though Leblanc is a three-time loser, many penny-pinching consumers will forgive him for his sins.
"He always hits the sweet spot people like—that's low cost," he says.
In Leblanc's favor is that, should he get another carrier off the ground, the likelihood is only a small minority of people will make the connection between him and his troika of failed carriers, Warren says.
“The brand is damaged but as long as he keeps coming up with different names, very few people will be able to draw the parallels, and he'll be able to keep coming out with different brands,” he says.
According to court documents, Jetsgo lost CND 55 million (US$ 44M) in its last eight months of operations and CND 22 million (US$ 18) since the beginning of the year. The airline was so badly handled that it topped Canadian Business magazine's recent list of the worst managed brands in the country.
When it filed for court protection, Jetsgo had a total of 29 aircraft, including 15 company-owned Fokker 100s and 14 leased Boeing MD-83s. At the time, it was the country's Number 3 airline behind Air Canada and WestJet.
Shortly after, evidence quickly came to light that Jetsgo had been experiencing serious problems on several fronts, including numerous unpaid creditors, maintenance deficiencies and a troublesome landing in Calgary in January.
Warren says Leblanc may have an even bigger challenge on his hands because while consumers' memories may be short, investors' won't be. "He doesn't have a strong track record with lenders or equity investors. I can't see an equity investor that is likely to put up with him for another round," Warren says.
Pilon says Jetsgo's branding was not properly position from the get-go. He says it was in such a rush to launch its operation that it moved straight into tactical advertising of deeply discounted fares instead of starting with an awareness campaign—a more conventional strategy for start-ups.
"As a result, Jetsgo allowed customers to interpret their tactical campaigns and perception of dirt-low or stunt fares without any guidance. That lead to a great deal of questions about whether it was reliable, safe or clean," Pilon says.
Warren agrees. He says shortly after Jetsgo announced its "loonie flights"—so named because they cost a loonie, the nickname for the Canadian one-dollar coin—people should have been questioning Leblanc's own mental faculties. (Seats for one Canadian dollar were usually on a limited number of one-way flights outside of prime flying hours.)
He says airfares that could be paid for with the change in ones couch were "ridiculous" and even an airline rookie could predict a carrier wouldn't survive with such a pricing structure.
"If you create a cycle, people will only buy based on the discounted prices. If you do sell so far below cost to fill capacity, it makes it very tough to have people believe you're sustainable for the long run," he says.
Warren says Jetsgo, with its happy face logo, was a "cute" brand that initially said, "let's go have some fun." Today, it represents nothing more than somebody who went out and "actively mislead the public," he says.
Through a spokesman, Jetsgo founder Leblanc declined to be interviewed for this story.