It’s really tough being a regional airline in the UK, as BmiRegional and others can attest. Or at least would do if they were still in business.
Speculation continues around Flybe and its long-term survival. The first quarter of any year presents the usual challenges of soft demand and increased operational costs.
In the case of Flybe there appear to be a number of factors all conspiring at once against the airline; some would appear strategic, others tactical and some just completely outside of its control.
Regional can be good; it means a closeness to customers, brand loyalty, minimal direct competition and a perception that high air fares are paid by all. The reality, though, can be quite different: network fragmentation, numerous crew bases, high operational exposure and ultimately quite small catchment areas.
Planned schedules from UK airports (see table left – click to expand) highlight that Flybe will operate to some 26 airports this week, but no airport will have more than a 13% share of the airline’s services. Half of the airports served receive less than 3% of the planned services this week, making for a very complex network.
But perhaps most interestingly, if the concept of regional flying is to connect regional markets to the major hub, then Flybe fails to deliver, with only 4.5% of their flights to Heathrow – hardly a significant share for the airline. Flipping that around, Flybe has a 2.17% share of all Heathrow slots this week.
Access to Heathrow, connecting traffic and some perhaps higher-yielding local market has always been a weakness for UK-based regional airlines and Flybe, although having acquired more slots in recent years, still appears to lack the critical mass to make a real breakthrough at the UK’s premium airport.
Network planners in regional airlines always struggle with balancing frequency or service with the number of destinations served. The greater the number of destinations served the greater the network appeal, the lower the daily frequency the less appeal to the business traveller.
As the table (right – click to expand) highlights in many of the markets in which Flybe operates, the average daily frequency per destination is twice daily. While that may make day return trips possible for business travellers, it makes for long days and huge exposure to any cancellations or delays in the operating programme. Flybe’s network appears a case study in coverage rather than focus, spreading resources too thinly and leading to sub-optimal scheduling and frequency all around.
The case for waiving Air Passenger Duty (APD) on domestic services in the UK has been made for many years but is seen by the exchequer as an easy and soft target for revenue collection, which incidentally, is not reinvested directly back towards aviation.
Passengers have always been price-conscious and there are always alternate forms of public transport that can be considered. In many cases, 25% or more of the total air fare collected by Flybe is passed straight on to the UK Government as a tax collected on its behalf, once airport charges and other operating costs are included margins can be wafer thin; especially at this time of year.
The supreme irony of such high APD charges is that those funds are then used to support investment in other forms of transport. Recent upgrades to the West Coast rail network cost in excess of £9 billion, and while Flybe only provided a small part of APD funds (and indirectly that rail network investment), the subsequent damage to its services from Exeter and Bristol is only now beginning to be felt. While an improved transport infrastructure is much-needed in the UK in the short-term, the loss of regional services will not be recovered by those improvements.
Aviation is a global business but has some strange structures. For many airlines, the majority of their cost are based in US Dollars; aircraft lease cost and lease costs are the two largest cost items for many.
For Flybe, less than one-tenth of 1% of all their bookings in the past year were made in the US; some 90% were quite naturally made in the UK and, given the weakness of sterling to the US dollar, that has been a huge drain on the airlines reserves.
Ultimately, if Flybe does not survive then perhaps the biggest question should be around the model of regional flying. For most regional airlines in Europe, the commercial risk is all with the regional airline, especially those feeding long-haul network carriers with profitable networks. It seems harsh that the regional carrier takes all the risk, seeing little if any reward in a revenue and commercial model that supports the long-haul network.
In the US, regional air services continue to grow, admittedly with less direct alternate competitive threat. However, the operating model is very different with Capacity Provider Agreements (CPAs) frequently in place whereby the regional airline works under a contractual arrangement where revenues and costs are tightly controlled.
Such agreements provide a “protective blanket” for the regional airline while the network carrier gets valuable feeder traffic. Such an agreement for an airline such as Flybe would be extremely valuable at least for their services to a major hub such as Heathrow; but perhaps ultimately Heathrow is at the very heart of the Flybe challenge or problem.
Sold to Connect Airways in 2019 for £2.2 million, Flybe operates some 13 daily services at the airport with arrival slots throughout the day, some of which are in very attractive arrival hours for long-haul services.
Acquiring such a slot portfolio for such a discounted price may make for some interesting discussions around their current and future value if swapped out for other more lucrative long-haul services. Indeed, for the owners, the potential return from holding those slots for such a short period would represent a very shrewd investment; much better than from any airline operation.
Hopefully Flybe will pull through this time. But what about next time? The underlying market drivers are not encouraging in the long-term and perhaps the writing is finally on the wall for UK regional air services, at least as we traditionally know them. Low-cost airlines operating even lower frequency services are a potential way forward given their ability to stimulate markets and cost bases; some UK airports are already seeing such development.
Only time will tell.
John Grant is a senior analyst at OAG