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A Look Back at Air Canada Tango
In the early months of 2001, low-cost competition was heating up in Canada. WestJet had started operations a few years ago in 1996 and was growing quickly. Discount airline Canada 3000 had been a charter operator in Canada for many years but began offering scheduled flights in May of 2001. The world was also seeing a rise in low-cost carriers, with the founding of airlines like easyJet and Frontier Airlines in the late 1990s. Amid these developments, Air Canada made its first foray into the low-cost market with the launch of Air Canada Tango, also known as Tango by Air Canada.
Tango was a new brand offered by Air Canada and was the carrier’s attempt to offer a no-frills product for budget-conscious travelers. The company had already been struggling prior to the September 11th attacks, and the events of that tragic day only reinforced the need to reduce costs. Tango was formally announced on October 10, 2001.
“Prior to September 11, Air Canada had stated its intention…to move towards providing more low fare capacity in response to clearly changing consumer preferences and a rapidly slowing level of business travel,” said Robert Milton, then-President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada in the press release introducing Tango. “In the post-September 11 world of depressed demand, a move in this direction is all the more necessary, as we need to aggressively promote all consumer incentives that encourage and stimulate travel. As a result, we are introducing Tango by Air Canada to stimulate the market, reduce costs and above all, to enable customers to tailor their ticket price to their own pocket book and tastes.”
Milton went on to describe the concept behind the new brand. “Tango is targeted at those customers who, instead of a full service, mainline product, would like to buy simply a seat, and then add on, on a fee-basis, the extras that appeal to them, such as seat assignment, food and beverages, and audio-visual entertainment.” While this type of unbundled offering is the norm today, it was a relatively new concept back in 2001. This was a time where airline reservations typically included checked luggage, seat selection and an onboard meal in economy class on some airlines.
Tango’s Initial Product
Instead of launching new routes with the Tango brand, Air Canada chose to introduce Tango primarily on a series of existing domestic routes. Tango flights would supplement existing mainline operations, with the airline acknowledging that it expected Tango to draw some traffic from mainline Air Canada flights. However, the company was confident that the demand existed for both mainline and Tango flights, hoping that Tango would draw in travelers who would have otherwise flown on other low-cost carriers. Tango flights began on Nov. 1, 2001.
Air Canada’s initial announcement stated that Tango would have 13 Airbus A320 aircraft configured with 159 economy class seats. All but one aircraft were existing Air Canada aircraft that were reassigned from the mainline fleet. A single A320, registered as C-GJUL, came from Canadian charter airline Skyservice Airlines. Between 2002 and 2003, nine Air Canada Boeing 737-200s were also reassigned to the Tango fleet. These aircraft were configured with 117 economy class seats. Within a year though, most of Tango’s Boeing 737s had been sent to Zip, Air Canada’s new low-cost subsidiary.
The initial Tango network consisted largely of high-traffic domestic routes. Flights were offered between Toronto and Canadian cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Halifax. Tango also had flights between other Canadian city pairs like Montreal – Edmonton, Ottawa – Calgary and Halifax – Winnipeg. Just seven months after its launch, Tango celebrated its one-millionth passenger in June of 2002.
While many aspects of the Tango travel experience would be considered commonplace today, travelers were faced with new concepts and innovations at the time. The airline exclusively offered electronic ticketing, thereby eliminating paper tickets. Passengers could book separate fare classes on the two portions of a round-trip ticket, something that was typically not possible. During the carrier’s flights, snacks, beverages and headphones were available for purchase.
By the summer of 2002, Tango was offering flights to 23 Canadian destinations. That fall, it introduced flights to its first destinations in the United States: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Las Vegas. However, by the summer of 2003, Air Canada had begun winding down Tango’s operations. The low-cost brand’s network had shrunk, with only 15 Canadian cities and two American destinations listed on the schedule for the summer season that year.
On Aug. 14, 2003, Air Canada announced a significant change to the Tango concept that would signal the end of Tango as a separate airline brand. Air Canada had a new fare structure and the lowest fare class would be named Tango. Tango aircraft would be reintegrated back into the mainline fleet, but the unbundled fare concept would live on with Tango fares. While the low-cost airline was going away, it appeared that Tango did not fail. Instead, the concept was so successful that it was rolled out across the entire airline. The idea behind Tango would remain the same, even though it was now a fare class instead of its own airline: low fares with additional charges for add-ons like seat selection, checked baggage and snacks.
The Tango name lived on until Air Canada renamed the fare class to Standard in 2018. The carrier also introduced an even lower fare class known as Basic. By early 2004, all Tango aircraft had been returned to Air Canada’s mainline and charter operations, except for one Airbus A320 which went to USA 3000 south of the border. While some of Tango’s aircraft are now flying with other airlines or have been stored or scrapped, a few of the Airbus A320s that once flew for Tango are still in active service with Air Canada today.
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