Flybe have had some difficult times over the last couple of years, but according to the reports announced last week the financials look to be on the up, but that still doesn’t take away from the sometimes disorganised way the airline has to route planning and bases in the UK.
The story really starts with the sale of the slots flyBe had at Gatwick Airport to easyJet. It had a decent route network from the UK’s second largest airport to points around the UK including Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Belfast, along with a couple of seasonal French routes. With charges going up at the airport, the airline wanted out and sold the slots to easyJet who have taken over many of the routes. Combined with a network wide restructure of routes which saw flights from Luton to the Isle of Man and Jersey it looked as if there would be a complete withdrawal of the London market.
This combined with expensive aircraft from Embrear, and yet more on order meant that the losses were growing. Although they now call themselves a regional airline, at the time they really didn’t know what they wanted to be – they were stuck between a low cost airline and a regional carrier, doing neither very well. This is going to change with the shift towards the Dash 8 prop aircraft, which will rule out the more ‘low cost’ routes, in favour of supporting their core regional network.
Creating a superhub at Manchester was a good idea after the absorption of BA Connect, enabling flyBe to fill aircraft connecting onto a long haul network. A similar, but smaller hub has also been set up in Birmingham given their presence at the airport. Other bases have also been set up in Aberdeen and Bournemouth.
With a purple rebrand comes a return to London. A base in Southend thanks to Stobart Air providing a franchise type operation to the continent with some surprising routes to Germany, France and the Netherlands. Then along comes London City, arguably more suited to the ‘regional airline’ operation, but still high cost. The routes were different to Southend though, concentrating on the UK regional markets of Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Exeter and Dublin.
With tough competition on the Dublin route it was dropped, along with a reduction of flights to Exeter – somewhat of a surprising choice in the first place following the reduction of flights to the South West. Following the train problems in the regional, flyBe reinstated the Gatwick to Newquay meaning another London entry point for the airline, now looking even more confused than ever. To make things even more confusing, given the connections to the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), another London base was opened at Stansted, with even more UK regional routes which were not opened at London City.
With EMB190’s still in the fleet, their internal codename of Project Blackbird saw two of them allocated to Cardiff, again some more UK regional routes, combined with a couple of leisure – not really a regional offering.
The airline themselves have confirmed that at times the market at London City has been challenging, but they already increasing rotations to Edinburgh, which seems to be the most successful route from the airport. Oddballs though include a weekend only Amsterdam – going up against both Cityjet and BA with much high frequency.
The future looks to be set for them at London City, and their development will depend on the survival of Cityjet. A number of their routes have been dropped recently and would be a good fit for flyBe including Dresden and Nuremberg in Germany. At Stansted they are never going to win on these types of routes against Ryanair, who will always win on their cost base and has seen a retreat of easyJet to Southend, Luton and Gatwick rather than competing at the same airport.
It looks quite simple if you take out some of the clutter. London City is going to be premium, high frequency UK and near continent routes. Stansted is going take those routes which are more price sensitive and not always need the premium traffic – Newcastle and Isle of Man, while Southend with Stobart Air (assuming the association continues) will focus on smaller markets on the continent.
Remember although the airline might talk up low cost, that really means a low cost structure within the airline, and not always low cost tickets to the consumer. This really is now a ‘regional’ airline.