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Flybe: possible resurrection welcomed by Virgin Atlantic boss

‘We hope and hear that there may be some signs of a resurrection,’ said chief executive Shai Weiss

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 12 November 2020 13:08 GMT
Back soon? A Flybe Dash-8 aircraft at Newquay airport
Back soon? A Flybe Dash-8 aircraft at Newquay airport (Simon Calder)

Thirty-six weeks after Flybe collapsed, Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive has welcomed the prospect that the regional airline could resume flying.

Speaking at an online conference organised by Capa, the Centre for Aviation, Shai Weiss said: “We hope and hear that there may be some signs of a resurrection.

"If the commercial terms are there, we will be willing partners just as we’ve been in the past.”

Flybe collapsed on 5 March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold.

More than 2,000 people lost their jobs with the Exeter-based airline – which was the biggest regional carrier in Europe.

The airline served 119 routes and flew eight million passengers in its last full year.

Its main business was to connect UK cities. Flybe primarily operated domestic flights that do not begin or end in London, with frequent links between Scottish and English airports, and many routes to and from George Best Belfast City airport.

At a dozen UK airports, including Aberdeen, Belfast City, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Southampton, Flybe was the largest airline in terms of the number of flights.

A decade ago, when it went public, Flybe briefly had a market capitalisation of £250m. But by the winter of 2018-19 it was haemorrhaging cash – and was rescued by Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Air and US hedge fund Cyrus Capital.

They collectively pumped more than £100m into the venture, and planned to rename it Virgin Connect, but eventually gave up the struggle.

Since March, some of the old Flybe routes have been taken up, primarily by Loganair of Scotland and Eastern Airways, but the collapse in demand for air travel means there are far fewer regional flights within the UK.

Meanwhile Cyrus Capital has bought “the brand, intellectual property, stock and equipment” from the administrators of the failed regional airline, and is planning to relaunch Flybe in 2021.

Coronavirus in numbers

To do so would be a remarkable feat. It would require aircraft; the former Flybe planes have mainly been returned to the lessors. Staffing is also a problem: while the collapse of aviation in general and Flybe in particular has left many pilots and cabin crew out of work, providing appropriate training and simulator checks would be challenging.

Any Flybe mark two would also need an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC), issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). While the authority still lists Flybe as a holder, a new corporate entity would require fresh certification. Brexit is a complicating factor, since rules on validity will change from 1 January 2021 when the transition period ends.

In addition, airports previously served by Flybe are suffering, with Newquay in Cornwall closing during the English lockdown. And evidence suggests that many routes with acceptable alternatives by road or rail are no longer viable for flying.

An aviation insider said: “I’m hardly surprised Virgin Atlantic wants to try and extract something from its failed investment in Flybe. It will be looking for feed for its operations at Heathrow and Manchester.

“The climate for acquiring [take off and landing] slots at Heathrow is better than it has been for years, and Manchester – which took a huge hit when Flybe folded – will offer excellent terms to any start up.

“But many of the bread-and-butter routes that it used to rely on have already been snapped up."

Flybe began life in 1979 as Jersey European Airways. It became British European in 2000, and changed its name again to Flybe two years later.

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