DALLAS — There are a few instances of airlines that entered the cutthroat low-cost travel market and became industry leaders after more than 20 years of success. This is the case of Vueling (VY), the Spanish low-cost carrier (LCC), which turns 20 years old today, February 10, 2024.
The airline is on the cusp of its expansion, with over 250 routes, a fleet of more than 120 Airbus A320 family jets, and a network spawned from its largest El Prat Airport (BCN) hub, next to the coastal city of Barcelona.
The Spanish LCC has consistently reported profits during economic downturns and has recovered post-pandemic faster than most of IAG’s other airlines. So how did it all begin?
Barcelona, February 2004
Vueling started as a tiny carrier that took the chance to put the city of Barcelona on the map by operating a network of five destinations with two Airbus A320 aircraft. The first flight to Ibiza (IBZ), in the Balearics, took off on July 1, 2004.
As Cirium’s database of historical schedules shows, BCN was Europe’s eighth busiest airport by seat capacity in 2004. According to Mike Malik, CMO at Cirium, at the time, Iberia (IB), Spain’s largest airline, dominated the aviation industry in Barcelona. However, most of its resources and focus were directed towards Madrid, the country’s capital, where it generated significant revenue by operating long-haul flights to Latin America.
As a result, there was an opportunity for other airlines in the Barcelona market, such as Spanair and Air Europa (UX), who were not true low-cost carriers like JetBlue (B6) in the United States, to fill this void. This is when VY enters the scene, embracing a business model similar to B6, focusing on maintaining low costs while offering a wide range of passenger amenities. While it got pushback from IB in the form of Clickair (XG) two years later, the new LCC stood its ground, merging with XG in 2008.
During the 2024 International Tourism Fair of Madrid (FITUR), Airways had the opportunity to talk with Jordi Pla, director of Network Strategy and Long Term Planning at VY. “The five destinations we started 20 years ago have become more than 250.” Jordi Pla explained the interesting shape of the Vueling area at FITUR 2024: “The stand represents a map of the routes and destinations we currently operate, and we offer an immersive experience to understand the history and our vision of the Single European Sky.”
“During these 20 years,” he continued, “a very big challenge, not only for us but for the entire industry, has of course been the COVID-19 pandemic. We were facing March 2020 in a record situation regarding demand in Europe. The effects of the pandemic were much greater than we imagined, but we faced it positively to come out with more strength than we ever had before.”
As part of the “Vueling Transform” restructuring plan in 2020, the airline included up to 20 transformation projects that affected all aspects of the LCC, intending to exit the pandemic with a much higher level of competitiveness than they had earlier.
The Art of Choosing the Correct Destination
Less than a decade after its inception, IAG would fully own the Barcelona LCC, retaining CEO Alex Cruz—IAG would later appoint him as CEO of British Airways (BA). Throughout the 2010s, VY would stay true to its brand identity while expanding from BNC.
Vueling set up a base at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO), accepting short-haul passengers from the struggling Alitalia. It persisted in targeting Air France (AF) at Paris’s two main airports. It later opened a base at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS) and became significantly present at London Gatwick Airport (LGW).
“If the business works for the airline, it works for the destination and for the passenger.” Those words best define the search for the correct destinations to include in the network by Jordi Pla: “The most important thing is to work together with these institutions to identify the places that offer the most demand or lack of capacity.”
At the moment of writing, Vueling has captured almost 50% of all the demand for travel to and from Barcelona, but the airline is now looking even at other continents: “We have identified opportunities to grow around important events that will occur in 2024. The perfect example is the Copa América, in which we are also strengthening our operations in collaboration with tourism agencies in Catalonia and Barcelona.”
The LCC has lately placed an enormous focus on the country of Egypt, which has become one of the top destinations for Spaniards outside of Europe. Jordi Pla explained: “We love Egypt. Before the crisis in Israel, we operated flights to three destinations in the country from Barcelona: Cairo (CAI, Luxor (LUX), and Sharm-El-Sheikh (SSH). This is because, while Cairo and Luxor are great for cruises along the Nile River, Sharm-El-Sheikh is a great attraction on the Red Sea coast.
Featured image: Vueling is one of the largest Airbus A320neo IAG operators and has recently started flying the longer A321neo. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways