Tuesday, 7 Jul 2020

Could Flybe, which went bust in March, take to the skies again?

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad,” says Eric Praline, in Monty Python’s immortal Parrot Sketch. The character played by John Cleese continued: “He’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it.”

That, sadly, is what’s wrong with Flybe, too.

Until the early hours of 5 March, the Exeter-based airline was the biggest regional carrier in Europe.

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You may recall that it connected the UK’s cities, great and small, with some ventures into “near Europe”: Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and Paris.

But Flybe slumped from a brief post-IPO market capitalisation of a quarter-billion pounds to a machine that devoured cash from its rescuers – Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Air and US hedge fund Cyrus Capital – by the million, until they gave up the struggle and stumbled away.

Flybe briefly hit the headlines last week, when one of its Q400 aircraft was being prepared to leave Aberdeen airport but crumpled into an Embraer jet belonging to Loganair – its erstwhile partner turned foe.

“Haunting us from beyond the grave,” one Loganair insider said.

Then, just as all aviation eyes were on the mesmerising spectacle of a parade of ministers announcing that an announcement about the quarantine announcement was impending, they just couldn’t say when, Flybe popped up again.

In an interview with The Australian, Jonathan Peachey – adviser to Cyrus Capital – said: “We are doing everything we can to ensure that the business can emerge in some form from administration.”

Oh dear. It was awful for more than 2,000 Flybe staff when the airline collapsed, and dismal for the travellers who depended on it – especially at airports such as Belfast City and Southampton, where Flybe was the dominant carrier.

But reinventing the same airline would be as much of a failure as Laker Airways mark 2 and 3 turned out to be – the buccaneering Sir Freddie had two more goes at cheap-and-cheerful travel after Skytrain, but the magic had gone and the market had changed.

When the wretched coronavirus crisis eases and regional flying resumes, Flybe’s former rivals will pick up the profitable pieces. Loganair is already connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh with Southampton, and will shortly launch a link between Belfast City and Glasgow.

The previously lucrative links from Birmingham to Scotland’s two biggest cities may not be so profitable in an age of austerity and Zoom meetings – but easyJet will find out soon enough how much demand remains. And since Manchester airport has direct trains to the centres of both Edinburgh and Glasgow, the demise of these sub-200-mile routes is a reasonable outcome.

The triumvirate who tried to turn Flybe into Virgin Connect pumped £100m-plus into an airline that was haemorrhaging cash.

According to a leaked message to staff from Mark Anderson, the unfortunate chief executive at the time of the failure, all but £27m of the rescue fund “was gone before we even really started … we were in worse shape than even the shareholders thought we were”.

Flybe had the right kind of staff but the wrong kind of fleet (a muddle of unloved Q400s and ungainly Embraer jets), and a network that strayed dangerously beyond its potentially profitable UK core. Leeds Bradford to Dusseldorf and Cardiff to Milan were among the expensive aberrations.

Bereft of life, Flybe rests in peace. And that is where it should stay.

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