Munich Airport (MUC). Photo: Munich Airport.

LONDON – As we know, Flybe (BE) went into administration back in March this year, following a few years of financial downturns.

It started off in part with BREXIT having a profound effect on finances, to the COVID-19 pandemic becoming the final nail in the coffin.

I was able to sit down with Stuart Mitchell, the Chief Pilot of Flybe between 2017 and 2020 as well as Jon May, who was the Head of Crew Training for the carrier between 2016 and 2019.

Both are directors at Aspire Flight Training, a company that helps keep UK regional Pilots certified on certain aircraft types.

Flybe Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 G-JEDP seen departing runway 15 at Birmingham (EGBB, BHX). Picture: Thomas Saunders.

Q: How vital is the UK Regional Air Market to the country and why?

“The UK regional airline market is pivotal in rebuilding the economy as we transition from a Coronavirus world to something more ‘normal’.”

“A key Conservative Party manifesto pledge in the December 2019 General Election was to equalize the UK economic map.”

“Not only do Regional Airlines connect outlying towns and cities to the main hubs of London, Birmingham and Manchester they encourage growth and support local economies outside the airports. Prior to its demise, Flybe carried in excess of eight million passengers a year.”

At the time, Flybe was the UK’s 4th largest airline and the largest regional airline, being at least four times larger than other competitors.

“Even after the catastrophic impact of Covid-19, there will be insufficient regional seat capacity to meet the reduced demand.”

Photo: Flybe

Data also showed that Flybe provided between 46-52% of all UK regional airline seats with easyJet only offering 37%, Loganair and British Airways with 15% and Ryanair less than two per cent.

“Thousands of jobs are dependent on the Regional Aviation sector. Apart from the 2300 people directly employed by Flybe, the airline supported a vast number of businesses and employees in and around the regional airports it served.”

“In summer 2020 Flybe was scheduled to served 24 regional airports, compared with 18 for easyjet and 15 for BA) Nine UK airports relied on Flybe for more than 10% of it’s operations.”

“Southampton, Belfast City, Newquay and Exeter had over 50% of their summer 2020 flights scheduled with Flybe.”

“Without a replacement for the lost revenue these airports, and the surrounding businesses and jobs they support, are at great risk of being lost. “

“The economic impact for those regions would be immense and mortally wound the Government’s goal to ‘level up the Country’.”

Photo: Flybe

“In terms of connectivity, a large percentage of the UK population live within two hours of an airport, be it international or regional.”

“These airports provide the gateway for international travel for those choosing long-haul leisure destinations as well as connecting the domestic market for business and leisure travel.”

“As paradoxical as it may seem, regional aviation can also assist the Government to reach net zero carbon emissions.”

“Even with electrification of cars and railways there will be significant capacity issues and neither forms of transport can compete with air travel in terms of journey times over larger distances or to remote regions, e.g. Southampton-Aberdeen, Manchester-Exeter, Birmingham-Inverness and Belfast, Isle of Man, Channel Isles and Scottish Islands to mainland UK.”

“There is already strong evidence to suggest that today’s modern twin turboprop regional aircraft carrying 70-78 passengers (such as the Dash8 and ATR) have a smaller environmental impact than that of the equivalent number of vehicles required to cover the same journey.”

“Development of hybrid and electrical propulsion regional aircraft is well advanced.”

“There is clear evidence to believe a 70-seater, carbon neutral, regional aircraft will be certificated for operation by the end of the decade or maybe even earlier”.

“By working collaboratively with environmental groups, aircraft designers/manufactures and the regional airline, the UK Government could accelerate its progress towards the ‘2050 net zero’ goal and make the UK world leaders in the field – it’s an economic ‘win-win’ opportunity!”

Flybe Dash-8-400. Photo: Flybe.

Q: The government didn’t scrap Air Passenger Duty Tax as a way of trying to help Flybe. Would this have been a useful help or should the government have done more to support the regional market in other ways?

“Sadly, the government did not scrap APD; the regional airlines have been lobbying for it to be removed, or at least reduced, for many years without success.”

“An average one-way Flybe ticket was priced £65, of which £13 would be APD. With operating costs of between £50-£56 per seat, profit margins were almost non-existent.”

The pair noted that as a whole, the aviation industry benefits from not paying tax on aviation fuel and that there is not VAT on ticket prices.

One reason why the removal of APD wouldn’t happen easily is because it would be seen by rail companies as an unfair advantage.

“A reduction of APD, or it’s removal, even for a limited period, would significantly facilitate the return of regional air links and trigger the recovery of the local economies.”

“The Government does already support regional aviation but nominating PSO routes (‘public service obligation routes’)”.

“These are routes deemed to be of great public benefit – those providing connectivity to remote regions.”

“Here the government offers subsidies to airlines to operate a route on a competitive and sustainable basis.”

“Expansion of this scheme to include more regional airports must be implemented by the Government if it is to achieve its stated goal.”

Photo: Javier Bravo Muñoz.

Q: What do you believe the UK regional market should look like as we leave the world of COVID-19? Should it be a government-run base or should it be a private sector-funded venture but as long as it is well-funded?

“The failure of Flybe in March has left a huge hole in the UK regional aviation market. As we leave the world of Covid there is the opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper.”

“The UK Regional Aviation sector needs to be run as a partnership between Government, the CAA, aircraft manufacturers, airline operators, airports/local authorities, training providers AND environmental groups.”

“A collaboration of this size is complex and therefore needs to be administered at a suitable level. The DoT would be able to provide this function.”

“Aviation needs investment in R&D to achieve carbon neutral operations and this requires a level of profitability.”

“However, the historic model of regional airlines providing returns for ‘venture investors’ has to end.”

“The unrealistic profits margins and ‘frills’ associated with ‘aviation’ has to stop if operators are to reduce costs sufficiently to enable affordable ticket prices”.

“There needs to be joint investment from the Government and Private investment in an equitable way, i.e. where the airline employees, customers and the investors receive a fair reward (this may require Government regulation).”

Flybe turned from Purple and Orange into red with the Virgin Connect move. Photo: Flybe.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add about the regional market as well as those who may have lost their jobs because of the Flybe demise?

“We have no idea whether or not there will be a ‘Flybe 2’ in the near future but, if the Government is to remain true to its election promises, and we are going to resume economic activity anywhere near pre-Covid levels, an expansion of the current UK regional aircraft fleet must come at some point.”

“Aspire Flight Training believes that maintain the skills of those in the regional aviation sector who have lost the employment, such as the Flybe pilots and Cabin Crew, is a priority – they will a crucial component in assuring a safe and ‘minimum cost’ expansion.”

“We will continue to lobby all stakeholders to join the new era of collaboration and business modelling to achieve the return of employment and economic opportunity to all regions of the Country.”

Overall, it remains clear that going forward, the regional market will always remain an important element of the UK aviation strategy and industry.

COVID-19 can be turned into an opportunity within the UK government, and offering the links to remote areas and beyond can be a significant money-maker, especially going into economic recovery mode.

Ultimately, time will tell what the action of the government will be and going forward, what it will do to help those like Jon and Stuart get back into the skies.

If you are a pilot who has been affected by bankruptcy, then be sure to visit Aspire Flight Training in order to remain current!

Featured image: Munich Airport (MUC). Photo: Munich Airport.