Who killed Flybe?
Life for a regional airline – connecting the corners and cities of the UK with each other and assorted nearby Continental locations – is never meant to be easy.
The tightrope between “planes too empty” and “fares too low” is especially tricky when you operate smaller aircraft on thinner routes; all the more so when there is a half-decent rail alternative, with fickle customers happy to abandon you at the drop of a fare.
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Occupying the junior half of the aviation food chain makes regional airlines especially vulnerable to their bigger brethren with larger planes. When a route becomes well-established, with plenty of passengers, the giants muscle in.
Flybe made some odd choices in its own flightpath. In aviation, one size fits well. Ryanair has exclusively Boeing 737-800 jets, while easyJet remains true to the Airbus A320 family. With more than one aircraft type, costs mushroom and flexibility plummets. Yet Flybe chose a mixed-up fleet.
The rush of cash following a highly successful flotation in 2010 went to the airline’s head. Flybe ordered a shiny new fleet of Embraer jets.
They are splendid planes, but ridiculously fancy for a network of short hops averaging 270 miles and taking less than an hour. Each type needs its own pilots, engineers and spares. And when an Embraer breaks, its duties can’t easily be replaced by a Bombardier propeller plane: the passengers won’t all fit. To the bitter end, each Brazilian-made jet proved an unfortunate encumbrance.
“I’ve had lots of luck,” said Rod Eddington, when he left his role as CEO of British Airways. “All of it bad.” The last few incumbents at the helm of Flybe must feel equally unpatronised by fortune. Sterling slumped after the EU referendum in 2016. A large slab of Flybe’s costs were in dollars, while the vast majority of its earnings were in sterling (unlike easyJet and Ryanair, who earn plenty of euros).
But Flybe has proved an unerring author of its own misfortune.
In 2017 the carrier inexplicably chose to challenge the smaller regional airline Loganair on some of the thinnest routes in Europe: from the Scottish mainland to the Western and Northern Isles.
Attacking the incumbent triggered the sort of self-destructive carnage of the kind practised on the extreme wings of the Labour and Conservative parties.
Six months and millions of pounds worse off, Flybe finally flew south.
“Never pick a fight with someone who can’t afford to lose,” was the retrospective advice from one of the participants. It’s bad enough losing out to bigger rivals, let alone smaller foes.
Who killed Flybe? Misfortune and misadventure. But for four decades the airline and its predecessors flew many millions of us safely, providing essential lift for the industry of human happiness.
It will be a long, cold summer without Flybe.