The aviation industry has experienced a seismic change in the seven months since the collapse of the regional carrier. Key.Aero considers what form Flybe 2.0 could assume upon its relaunch
Once the UK’s third-largest airline, Flybe’s demise in early March came at a time when European airlines were just beginning to face up to the realities of operating in a COVID-19 era.
The news yesterday, that it could restart operations as early as next year came as a welcome surprise to many, but with several hurdles for it jump over before then, it will likely emerge on the other side unrecognisable from its former self.
The new owners, Thyme Opco, have made it very clear they intend to resume operations, but what exactly are they restarting?
According to aviation data specialists Cirium, Flybe was one of the biggest operators of short-haul routes within the UK and Europe, completing a total of 2,374 flights per week with 175,260 available seats from 43 different hubs, based on the month of January this year.
The Exeter-based carrier was the third largest airline in the country, measured by volume of flights after easyJet and British Airways, representing 11% of all rotations operated by UK carriers.
A total of 83 routes were conducted by Flybe as a monopoly, accounting for 86.4% of its network. As of January, 88.8% (52) of its domestic routes were not served by any other carrier – along with 82.6% (31) of its international routes.
For domestic links, the airline’s busiest monopoly route was between Manchester and Belfast, with 348 flights and 27,036 available seats per month. The second most popular was between Birmingham and the Northern Ireland capital, with 316 flights and 25,588 available seats per month. In third place was the Birmingham-Edinburgh link which was flown 316 times per month.
In addition to domestic services, Flybe’s dominance also stretched to some of its European services. Its Southampton-Amsterdam link was the most popular example operated exclusively by the regional carrier, which had 276 flights per month and more than 20,000 monthly seats.
At the time of its collapse, the regional airline boasted a fleet of 65 aircraft comprising 54 De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400s, nine Embraer E175s and a pair of E195s.
The first battle the new owners will face is to do with the carrier’s licenses and certificates. On April 30, the Civil Aviation Authority revoked Flybe’s Operating License and Route Licences as well as suspending its Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC).
This was on the basis that Flybe no longer had the infrastructure to meet the regulatory requirements to hold a valid AOC. It’s unchartered territory from here as to whether the CAA simply grant the new carrier the required licenses, or make it go through a lengthy recertification process which could, on the first hurdle, delay or derail the new owner’s relaunch plans.
Aircraft acquisitions will also be a major aspect of its revival. Its roster of 65 airframes were mostly leased, but 20 of the 54 turboprops and its entire fleet of E175s bar two, were wholly owned by the carrier.
Immediately after it went into administration, leases were terminated and lessors began to take their assets back while wholly-owned aircraft, numbering 20 Dash 8-400s, had previously been mortgaged with Norddeutsche Landesbank in November 2018 for the struggling airline to release much-needed funds. Following the airline’s collapse, the lender took ownership of the aircraft in lieu of outstanding mortgage payments.
The consequences of this action are that it is unlikely that any new airline created from Flybe’s ashes will operate any aircraft previously used by the failed Exeter-based regional. Although this could be an ideal opportunity for the Thyme Opco-owned start-up to build a more modern and efficient fleet than that taken on by the Connect Airways consortium when it acquired Flybe in January 2019. As a result of COVID-19 and its impact on the sector, lessors are falling over themselves to get operators to accept aircraft, so the company can also expect attractive rates.
In terms of routes, the new carrier will be re-entering a very different aviation sector than the one it left in March. Airlines such as Loganair, Blue Islands and Eastern Airways all stepped up in the aftermath of its collapse to snap up the carrier’s most profitable routes. Aer Lingus recently launched a swath of new domestic services from Belfast to several airports across England, including Flybe’s busiest monopoly links between the Northern Ireland capital, Manchester and Birmingham.
Its busiest international service from Southampton to Amsterdam has also been covered by KLM, who announced a return to the Hampshire facility in July.
While Flybe’s March 2020 collapse enabled Eastern Airways and Loganair to make their Heathrow debuts, Thyme Opco’s new purchase hasn’t lost out on operating from the capital’s biggest hub. The now-defunct carrier was allocated 41 weekly slot pairs which the European Commission stated British Airways was forced to make available to other airlines when it merged with BMI back in 2012 - these had previously been held by Virgin Atlantic’s Little Red subsidiary, which operated between 2013 and 2015. The European Commission granted Flybe grandfathering rights for the London Heathrow landing slots on August 4 – five months to the day after it ceased flying – meaning that Thyme Opco has a legitimate right to them once it gets its carrier up and running. It’s likely that International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG, BA’s owner) won’t be taking this lying down though – the slots were appropriated by IAG following Flybe’s insolvency as the Madrid-based company as they consider the slots theirs as part of the BMI acquisition. It’s possible that the new Flybe’s first route might be to the courts to resolve this issue over slots.
It will be interesting to see how the new owners of Flybe create a unique offering, but a spokesperson said the firm plans to “start off smaller than before” and “restore essential regional connectivity in the UK” in the process.