With the blame game already underway, Airliner World editor Gordon Smith offers his analysis following the untimely demise of the regional carrier.
While the collapse of Flybe was not entirely unexpected, the profound impact that the loss of the carrier will have on the UK aviation ecosystem simply cannot be overestimated.
With the exception of a handful of headline routes – notably those to and from Heathrow scooped up following the demise of Virgin’s Little Red experiment – Flybe did not offer a particularly sexy route network. While others chased the bright lights of major hubs and exotic hotpots, the Exeter-based carrier’s bread and butter routes formed the backbone of intra-UK connectivity. The company, best known for operating dark purple Q400 turboprops, carried more than nine million passengers last year, comprising almost 40% of all domestic flights in the UK. For many on board, this wasn’t frivolous flying for fun, it was a lifeline link for business and trade, or to stay connected with friends and family.
It was reported just last week that Mark Anderson, chief executive of Connect Airways – Flybe’s parent firm – was pleading with the new business secretary, Alok Sharma to consider a cut in aviation taxes. The letter, seen by Sky News, suggested that 88 of Flybe’s 120 routes are not flown by any other airline, and that in the event of a theoretical collapse, the majority of these were unlikely to be picked up by rivals.
"If Flybe were to cease trading, only a small number of our routes are likely to be taken up by another carrier, almost certainly at reduced frequencies," Anderson wrote. This morning his words will no doubt be reverberating around the corridors of Westminster, sending a chill down the spine of an already overloaded government machine struggling to cope with COVID-19 and Brexit negotiations.
The burden of Air Passenger Duty – levied at £13 for each domestic flight – has been a perennial source of friction for Flybe management. However, the genie was almost certainly out of the bottle. No political party wants to be seen to favour short-haul flying over greener alternatives – particularly given the growing societal and now legal pressure to consider the environmental impact within governmental decision making. Whispers of a revised pricing structure for the most important routes were plentiful, but in the end, Flybe’s staff, customers and investors needed tangible policy action, not procrastination. That said, the company’s problems were far bigger than a painful tax bill and the unwelcome spectre of COVID-19. For many years, Flybe has been violently buffeted by a succession of internal and external factors ranging from startling mismanagement to simple misfortune.
While the vast majority of Flybe’s scheduled services operated within the UK or to its immediate neighbours – there is also a critical knock-on impact for those travelling further afield. Credit where it is due; over recent months and years, Flybe management negotiated a prized cluster of codeshare and interline agreements with some of the biggest names in global aviation. This enabled those based in Aberdeen to plug neatly in Birmingham into the Emirates network, or those living in Belfast the opportunity to link into Singapore Airlines’ five-star service at Manchester. The sum total of these deals offered tangible alternatives to flying via Heathrow – something many regional travellers proactively avoid if indeed it is an option at all.
So there we have it. Literally overnight, the UK has become less significantly less connected. In the hours ahead the blame game will reach boiling point, with allegations and rumours likely to be the only thing flying around Exeter.
Coming so soon after the loss of Thomas Cook, and following barely two years after the failure of Monarch, difficult questions will be asked about how, if indeed when, the government should intervene to mitigate some of the brutally raw impact which follows catastrophic airline collapses. Yet amid the bickering in Whitehall and beyond, the human cost should not be overlooked. Many Flybe staff, both in the air on and the ground have been enormously loyal to the company in recent years, standing by the airline through periods of extreme uncertainty. With more than 2,000 people directly employed by the carrier, and many thousands more intrinsically linked as stakeholders through its supply chain, Flybe’s undignified demise is going to cut hard and deep.