DALLAS – On November 22, 2022, the world was introduced to Fly Atlantic, a brand new low-cost airline set to launch operations in Summer 2024 from its first base at Belfast International Airport (BFS).
We caught up with the man behind the UK’s newest airline Andrew Pyne to delve a little deeper into the idea behind the carrier, why Belfast was chosen as its first hub and its operational plans.
Pyne’s Aviation Credentials
Pyne is no stranger to the airline industry after starting his career with British Airtours (KT) in 1979. From here, he’s held various positions in airlines around the world, including Cathay Pacific (CX), Cobalt Air (CO) and WOW Air (WW). It was his experience at the latter that the idea for Fly Atlantic was born.
“The inspiration [for Fly Atlantic] comes partly from my time as an adviser to the board at WOW Air,” Pyne explained. “The long haul low-cost model could be made to work, but the high-cost base of Iceland and the (wrong) mix of aircraft types militated against sustained success.” Indeed, WOW lasted almost seven years before abruptly ceasing operations in March 2019.
Then came the global grounding of the aviation industry, which Pyne used as an opportunity. “During the pandemic, I had the time and space to work on a new business concept: one that took the positive elements of the WOW experience but adjusted the model to take account of the new competitive environment emerging on the North Atlantic and sought to put right some of the flaws in the WOW concept. The plan, team and airport all came together during 2021.”
The UK is now in the early stages of an economic recession, not the best time, some might say, to start a new airline. But rather than take this as a challenge, Pyne sees this as an opportunity, “Passengers will be re-focused on value for money and will see the potential for ‘trading down,’ e.g. from full service to low-cost airlines on longer haul flights.”
Belfast has not had a transatlantic service since Norwegian Air Shuttle (DY) dropped its long-haul services in 2018. However, some were a little surprised that Fly Atlantic would choose BFS, especially with Aer Lingus (EI) offering a comprehensive range of transatlantic services from its Dublin (DUB) base, complete with US customs and immigration pre-clearance.
But Pyne sees the Northern Irish facility as a prime location, “Belfast is unserved in terms of transatlantic air services. It is uniquely well-placed to serve as a gateway to both Ireland and Great Britain. It also provides a suitably low-cost environment in which to establish a powerful hub. We evaluated 10 to 12 other airports in the UK and Ireland. Belfast delivered what we need.”
Another selling point for BFS is its lack of Air Passenger Duty (APD) tax for long-haul services, which the Northern Irish Assembly abolished in January 2013.
Choosing BFS as a base has also been questioned due to its lack of passenger feed. However, this is something that Pyne will address by utilising his own airline and fellow BFS operators. “Destinations will be split roughly 50/50 between European feeders and North American points. By that stage, we intend to offer two banks of connecting flights at Belfast, increasing our network reach in both directions.”
When asked about other future bases, Pyne said, “We intend to be Northern Ireland’s own airline. No thoughts at this point of establishing secondary hubs or bases.”
Rather than go up against its fellow BFS low-cost incumbents easyJet (U2), Jet2 (LS) and, from March 2023, Ryanair (FR), who are returning to the airport, Pyne hopes that Fly Atlantic will be able to work with, rather than against its rivals. “We’re not intending to go head to head with either Easy or Jet2 (or Ryanair, for that matter). On the contrary, we will seek partnerships,” he said.
The airline also stated that it would be operating 35 destinations by the time it is fully operational, an ambitious target for a new entrant. But Pyne disagrees, “That’s a year five target, but I don’t see it as particularly ambitious; I think it’s necessary to achieve that type of scale to be competitive in the longer term.”
Fly Atlantic has already unveiled its new livery after joining forces with Lift Aero Designs. Artist’s impressions of both the Airbus A321 and Boeing 737 MAX have appeared in the airline’s eye-catching colours. But a deal has yet to be made. “We’ve been talking to Airbus since Summer 2021 and also to a number of aircraft lessors. Boeing is a more recent discussion, but both aircraft types are in play. We are confident of availability, at the right rates, to make the plan work.”
Lift Aero Design has described the livery as celebrating the ‘enormous flow of people and goods between Europe and North America, and the ease of traveling affordably and in style.’ Daniel Baron, LIFT’s managing director, said, ““We aim to give FlyAtlantic a super fresh, dynamic look that gets noticed in a big way. Like all of our work, we create brands and experiences that are highly differentiated from competitors and resonate with travelers and staff alike.”
Despite no decision regarding aircraft type, Pyne is sure of following the tried and tested single-fleet-type trend used by most low-cost carriers. “Absolutely,” Pyne replied when asked this question. “The same type will operate both feeder and transatlantic services. We should achieve utilisation of about 17 hours per day.”
Details of the onboard product are still to be ironed out, but Pyne said that the offering is likely to be “a standard LCC product – but with a small premium cabin where there will be complimentary service.”
“Offering a New Model”
And what about the doubters who have said that Fly Atlantic is “destined to fail,” Pyne remained buoyant. “There will always be plenty of doomsters and naysayers,” he explained. “But then there is informed scepticism against knee-jerk negativity. We are obviously more interested in understanding the basis for the former.”
Pyne’s tenure at WOW Air has given him the idea of recreating the hub-and-spoke transatlantic transfer model used at Reykjavik’s Keflavík International Airport (KEF).
So, could this work? One advantage Pyne has is that, as mentioned, he has seen the mistakes that other low-cost long-haul airlines have made. “There have been plenty of failures in terms of long haul low cost, so of course, I understand where this scepticism stems from.
“But we are offering a new model – perhaps one that is not properly understood by many of the critics – and importantly, we are utilising valuable experience from airlines that failed in the market before.
“It’s worth remembering that LCCs did build to nearly 8% of the transatlantic market pre-pandemic; they did achieve profitability. We are building from that platform.”
For now, Pyne and his team are busy behind the scenes putting together the finishing touches and finances to ensure that Fly Atlantic becomes a reality and proves those doubters wrong. We will keep you updated with news on this exciting new airline.
Featured Image: Fly Atlantic is in discussions with Boeing over its 737 MAX airliner. Photo: Fly Atlantic.