Published on Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Why Flybe's survival matters

Flybe might be a minnow of the airline world, carrying the same number of passengers in a year as easyJet carries in a month, but it is nevertheless a very significant player in the UK travel market.

Not only is it one of Europe's biggest regional airlines, flying to up to 56 European airports, but it is also responsible for the majority of UK domestic flights outside London.

BALPA General Secretary, Brian Strutton summed up the situation when he said: "If Flybe didn't exist, it would have to be invented. The airline plays an incredibly important role connecting the regions and nations of the UK and onwards to Europe.

"The importance of that regional connectivity cannot be overstated. Cities such as Exeter, Southampton, Birmingham and Cardiff rely extremely heavily on Flybe for their air links and for their economic prosperity. Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man would also suffer hugely if Flybe's routes suddenly disappeared.

"On top of that Flybe has over 2,400 dedicated and loyal staff members, including pilots, many of whom have been with the company for a long time, and none of whom deserve to lose their job over years of management failures. Plus the airline serves as a skills pipeline for the rest of the UK aviation sector."

Strutton issued the statement after it was revealed that the airline , which was sold almost a year ago to a Virgin Atlantic-led consortium for £2.2 million, was on the brink of collapse, with management having approached the Government for some sort of lifeline.

"The Government must recognise that the UK cannot afford to lose yet another airline, and the markets that Flybe serves cannot afford to lose their air connections which help businesses thrive. So we urge the Government to take every possible action to keep Flybe flying," he added.

Flybe is based in Exeter but is the second biggest operator from several UK airports, such as Belfast City, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester. Some communities depend on its services for their survival. Take Newquay in Cornwall, for example, which has no direct train service to London but Flybe offers a service to Heathrow which takes an hour, while in the Isle of Man, Flybe has a contract to fly NHS patients from the island to hospitals in Liverpool. 

It also brings passengers from regional airports to Heathrow, which is probably one of the reasons Virgin Atlantic was persuaded to take a stake in the carrier. Flybe currently operates flights to Heathrow from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Guernsey and Newquay and there are plans for more routes to be added to feed into Virgin's long-haul services. 

Not only that, but the airline provides links to the City of London from Amsterdam, Belfast, Edinburgh, Exeter and Jersey.

Flybe was also responsible for some of the recent growth - and projected future growth - from Southend Airport, which is owned by one of its investors, Stobart Group. It currently operates 12 routes from Southend.

Many business travellers depend on its flights, which often provide a cheaper alternative to domestic rail services. It's especially important to the Northern Ireland economy. If it collapses, Northern Ireland will lose 16 air routes to mainland UK, leaving it with just four - unless other airlines jump in to plug the gap.

That said, Flybe has been struggling financially for many years - it has made a loss in five of the past seven years - and some would argue that one of the reasons was that it has spread its resources too thinly, operating from too many airports with not enough flights from each one, making its flights less appealing to business travellers than if it had offered more flights from fewer airports.

One of the first acts of its new owners, which include the Stobart Group and investment group Cyrus Capital was to take a hatchet to its loss-making network, culling routes and closing non-profitable bases.

It pulled aircraft out of Cardiff and Doncaster Sheffield Airport at the end of last summer, although flights from Cardiff have continued. It also dropped flights from East Midlands to Jersey, Edinburgh and Glasgow and from Manchester to Toulouse and Milan. Flights from Leeds to Southampton and Dusseldorf were also axed.

Additionally, Flybe has also ceased jet operations, switching back to turboprop flights, which are cheaper to operate but less appealing to travellers.

Nevertheless, it remains a significant player in the UK regional market and it would be a huge loss if the airline, which was created in 1979, followed the likes of bmi, Monarch and Thomas Cook Airlines and disappeared.

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