DALLAS – Following the success of low-cost giants easyJet (U2) and Ryanair (FR) in the early 2000s, legacy airlines that had previously dismissed these upstarts were now forced to recognise these new companies as a threat to their business.
Spain had been one particular market that U2 and FR had targeted intensely, leading the Spanish flag carrier Iberia (IB) to see its market share decrease, particularly in the northeast Catalonian region of the country. This had been worsened by the arrival of Barcelona (BCN) based Vueling (VY) in 2004.
Iberia needed to react, so ‘Catair’ was born, a joint venture between IB, Iberostar, Cobra, Nefinsa (parent of Air Nostrum) and Quercus Equity, with each party owning 20% of the start-up. Iberia would be tasked with the day-to-day running of the new carrier with an initial capital of €120m (US$129m).
The ‘Catair’ name, chosen to represent the airline’s ‘CATalonian’ Barcelona base, was dropped in favour of Clickair (XG). Management said this represented the concept that more low-cost airlines sold tickets via the Internet.
Speaking of the growing threat of low-cost carriers (LCC) at the time, a spokesperson for Iberia’s said, “We were losing ground in Barcelona so quickly…it is better for us if the low-fare passengers are taken over by Clickair and not Vueling or Ryanair.”
Alex Cruz was appointed as the airline’s new CEO in September 2006 as the airline was awarded its Air Operators Certificate (AOC). Cruz set about developing Clickair to operate a ‘third-generation low-cost carrier model.’ This would see the airline offer low-fare and no-frills for its budget passengers while allowing customers to choose frills such as frequent flier miles and meals. Iberia flight codes were placed on XG flights, and the Spanish flag carrier even withdrew from several routes, handing them over to Clickair.
Cruz also pointed out that Clickair was an independent airline from its parent, “Iberia does not want to influence Clickair…We know the failures when bigger airlines get involved in smaller low-cost carriers.”
The airline took to the skies on October 1, 2006, with initial routes from BCN to Seville (SVQ), Geneva (GVA), Zurich (ZRH) and Lisbon (LIS) and between SVQ and Paris-Orly (ORY).
Three ex-IB Airbus A320s were transferred from the parent (EC-GRE, EC-GRF and EC-GRG). Cruz wanted a unique livery to make it stand out from the crowd and chose to copy the bare metal colour scheme of American Airlines (AA). However, after removing the paint from an A320 (EC-ICS), management admitted it was not a good move. XG chose a “tiny silver” like grey paint applied to the first five airframes. However, engineers discovered that the paint was 309lb (140kg) heavier than a regular mix and required three additional days in the hanger to coat the airframe. A standard grey livery was then adopted moving forward from February 2007.
By January 2007, the airline had five ex-Iberia A320s in operation. The following month, it became the first LCC to operate into London Heathrow (LHR), with daily flights to Valencia (VLC), SVQ and La Coruna (LCG). Clickair subsequently moved the SVQ service to London Gatwick (LGW).
In the first three months of operations, Clickair carried over 300,000 passengers, and by the end of the first year, this had grown to 4.5 million on 50 domestic and international routes. Its fleet had increased to 22 Airbus A320s, and it held the biggest share of traffic at its BCN hub.
In April 2007, the carrier received its first brand-new Airbus A320s, part of an order placed by parent Iberia, which was reducing its short-haul fleet at the time. Their arrival allowed XG to add domestic routes from BCN to LCG, Malaga (AGP), Santiago de Compostela (SCQ) and Vigo (VGO). Mini-bases were also established at Bilbao (BIO), LCG, SVQ and VLC.
However, by the end of 2007, the airline chose to slow down its ambitious expansion plans. The Spanish market was becoming increasingly overcrowded, with Cruz saying, “We are at a point of saturation in Spain that is unsustainable, and will only get worse.”
Vueling was also having difficulties, and in November 2007, the carrier went through a complete management restructure. CEO Carlos Muñoz and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Lázaro Ros were out. This move was made to appease its biggest shareholder, Grupo Planeto’s Inversiones Hemisferio.
In February 2008, Vueling announced it sought a strategic partner to invest in the ailing airline. Clickair was the obvious choice as the two shared the same base, operated the same aircraft and had a 30% route network overlap.
Despite Clickair stating that it would prefer to stay independent and ‘focus on fast internal growth,’ in July 2008, the two carriers announced their merger. The Vueling name would survive, with Cruz stating it was “a very strong brand” and “considered as the ‘apple’ of Spain.”
Iberia retained a 45% shareholding in the new airline, and Alex Cruz remained in charge. Twenty of the carrier’s A320s went to Vueling, while the remaining aircraft went to other operators.
The merger was completed on July 15, 2009, and the Clickair name disappeared from the skies. While its story may have been short, the airline made its mark on the low-cost industry.