Flybe: what is happening with the resurrected regional airline?

Birmingham and Belfast City will be the first bases, but there is no definite news on the route network

Flybe: what is happening with the resurrected regional airline?

Two years ago the UK’s largest regional airline collapsed. Flybe was deeply in debt after burning through around £100m in funding from a rescue consortium.

Yet in April 2021, Flybe Ltd was established as “a British commercial airline which will operate throughout the UK and EU”.

By November last year, the revived airline announced its HQ would be at Birmingham airport; previously Flybe was based at Exeter airport.

Flybe says operations are “scheduled to begin in early 2022”.

So what is happening? These are the key questions and answers.

Just remind me about Flybe mark 1?

The airline began life in 1979 as Jersey European. For a couple of years from 2000, it was known as British European. And in 2002, it became known as Flybe during the spell when names for airlines were constructed to give them a memorable URL.

In December 2010, it went public and was briefly valued at £250m. Sadly, less than a decade later Flybe was worth approximately zero.

In the last year of its relatively brief life, Flybe was acquired by a consortium led by Virgin Atlantic. It was midway through a rebranding process intending to see Flybe reborn as Virgin Connect. But the investors, having pumped in £100m and seen it disappear, concluded there was no hope of turning the airline around and pulled the plug.

At 2am on 5 March 2020, passengers with flights booked that day on Flybe were told: “Please do not travel to the airport as your flight will not be operating.”

As more than 2,000 staff learnt they were losing their jobs, all future departures on the Exeter-based airline were cancelled – as were the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of passengers with forward bookings.

I read Flybe collapsed because of Covid-19?

Perhaps you have been reading The Sun, which earlier this month ran a story headlined “Hugely popular British airline to restart flights by Easter after collapsing due to Covid”?

Flybe was certainly the first collapsed carrier to attribute its demise, at least partially, to the virus. The then-chief executive, Mark Anderson, said funding challenges were “compounded by the outbreak of coronavirus which in the last few days has resulted in a significant impact on demand”.

In October 2020, when the the coronavirus pandemic was paralysing the world, another partner in the failed rescue consortium, Cyrus Capital, bought the brand from the receiver.

Why is Flybe coming back?

According to the chief executive of the revived airline, Dave Pflieger, it will be a “new, better, and stronger company that will build upon a respected and well-known brand, create valuable industry jobs, and once again play a critical role in connecting regions and communities across the UK”.

In November 2021, Flybe announced its HQ and initial crew base would be at Birmingham airport.

Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, welcomed the news, saying: “It really is such brilliant news that Flybe is coming back as a commercial airline, and even better that it has chosen Birmingham to house its new headquarters.”

Mr Pflieger said: “We plan to provide more information in the coming weeks and months about ticket prices, new routes and destinations, and other important news that will help customers visit loved ones, get away for a weekend, and get out on business trips.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for us, and we look forward to sharing more updates in the future.”

That was months ago. What’s happening now?

Good question, given that operations are “scheduled to begin in early 2022”.

We know that the airline will, like its failed predecessor, use the Q400 propellor plane, in a very similar livery to Flybe Mk 1. I have asked the new airline:

How big will the fleet be?What routes will Flybe operate initially?And, crucially, when will flights start?

Flybe declined to respond to these specific questions. But there is plenty of speculation around – particularly on the route network.

Flybe is recruiting cabin crew at both its Birmingham HQ and a planned Belfast base – which will be at the City airport, not the International one.

“All of us here at Flybe are getting incredibly excited about our launch in early 2022 and we’re looking for some fantastic cabin crew to join our team,” the airline says.

“We are offering permanent contracts for Birmingham and Belfast bases so if you’re experienced cabin crew and have a current cabin crew attestation and you want to be part of our exciting journey then we want to hear from you!”

You can apply here.

So where do you think Flybe will go?

Both Belfast City and Birmingham airports were hard hit by the collapse of Flybe mark 1 – the Northern Ireland airport particularly so. It seems likely that a network from Belfast City will serve a range of key cities in Great Britain, certainly including Birmingham.

Crucially, though, Flybe is holding slots at two of Europe’s most in-demand airports – London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol.

It could fly Belfast City to Heathrow in competition against British Airways/Aer Lingus, and from Birmingham to Amsterdam against KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

But Flybe may also consider so-called “W routes,” for example flying Belfast-Heathrow-Aberdeen-Heathrow-Belfast.

The schedule analyst Sean Moulton notes that a new entrant, Emerald, flying in the colours of Aer Lingus, will limit the opportunities. He said: “Emerald have this week put six routes on sale from Belfast starting in March, with these being some of the historically largest routes from Belfast. This restricts the capacity for Flybe in any expansion.

“There’s suggestions they will launch a base in Southampton too, but with Eastern Airways and Loganair taking over most routes, is there room for them?”

Ralph Anker, editor of The Anker Report and an expert on route networks, concurs. He says: “Since the original Flybe’s collapse, the most viable of the airline’s domestic routes have been picked up mostly by either Loganair or Eastern Airways who are using more appropriately sized (smaller) aircraft on the routes, especially given the post-Covid drop in domestic demand.

“These are well-established, though much smaller carriers than Flybe was. If Flybe were to return using the larger Q400s it previously operated, it is not obvious where it would find a niche in the UK market.”

When will we find out more?

On 4 March, Flybe told me: “We will be sure to get you an update as soon as we have more to share.”

Sunday 27 March is when the summer schedules begin – and, being just ahead of Easter and the extra travelling that the holiday involves, it would seem an obvious day to begin.

But airlines also need to put their schedules on sale with plenty of time for people to book. With barely three weeks remaining before the official start of summer in the airline world, the chances of a launch in the first quarter of 2022 look increasingly remote.