You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to be familiar with Flybe if you live in Belfast. Wherever you are, the whirring sound of the airline’s turboprop passenger planes flying low over the city is just part of everyday life as short-haul flights take off and land at George Best City Airport. So Thursday 5th March was a strange day without the sight and sound of those commuter flights bound for or arriving from various locations around Great Britain. With Flybe in administration, yet another airline has gone to the wall in Europe as the industry continues to contract.
I didn’t use Flybe very often. For most of my time in Belfast, it’s been easyJet or nothing as no other airline – not even Ryanair – serve the Belfast-Liverpool route. But for a brief period between 2016 and 2018, Flybe launched a service between Belfast City and Liverpool John Lennon, at last providing some kind of competition on what is a very busy route. Although their flights were a little more expensive, I was more than happy to bear the cost to use a more convenient airport (easyJet operate from Belfast International, which is 40 minutes away by bus), and the service was always good in my experience.
Boarding a Flybe turboprop flight could seem a little strange to those used to the larger jets operated by the likes of Ryanair and easyJet. The outside of the aircraft seemed much closer due to the thinner casing of the fuselage, and the sound of the propellers was deafening. It was a squeeze on the inside too, with space at a premium on small aircraft and even the overhead lockers barely big enough to take a fully-packed backpack. And if it was windy, you’d feel very vulnerable as the Bombardier Q400 swayed and rocked in the currents. Indeed, cancellations and delays weren’t unusual, due to the aircraft’s relative vulnerability in adverse weather. Nevertheless, it was comfortable, the staff were friendly and welcoming with dapper purple uniforms, and they could connect you to places you’d otherwise face a much longer journey to get to.
And that’s why Flybe is a loss to the industry and to so many communities and smaller airports. Eighty percent of flights from Belfast George Best City were operated by Flybe. The picture is even worse for Southampton, which has lost 90% of its flights overnight due to Flybe’s collapse. Flybe provided a vital link between Cornwall and other parts of England, particularly London, from Newquay Airport, in a part of the country poorly connected to other regions. Then there’s the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, which all saw crucial routes served by Flybe. Even Manchester Airport – the north of England’s busiest airport and its gateway to the rest of the world – is losing 16% of its flights with Flybe. The vast majority of these routes were viable and profitable (with some operating as public service obligations) which explains why other airlines have already jumped in where they can, with many airports, including Belfast City, in talks with other operators to see if these routes can be salvaged.
Unfortunately for Flybe and those who enjoyed their service, the company had made too many mistakes. Overreach saw them invest in a fleet of Embraer jets in an effort to break into the European market, but this half-hearted attempt left them in debt with expensive aircraft they couldn’t gainfully employ. Even the branding gave the impression of a half-finished job, with some planes painted in the new purple livery and many others left in the older white and blue. This was a rudderless airline that wrote its own obituary, but even then, it looked as if help was at hand through the UK government, until the coronavirus came along and hit passenger numbers while simultaneously diverting government attention.
It’s good news that other airlines already appear to be stepping in. Loganair are operating between Belfast City and several Scottish destinations. Others are in talks to keep routes served around the UK. Whatever your views on the merits and perils of aviation and its environmental impact, I think it’s sad to see a formerly successful airline that had a decent core business model dig its own grave so spectacularly and leave so many unemployed and so many others in connected trades fearing for their own futures. Simply switching to rail or other modes of transport is not an answer in the UK, where the railways are a source of frustration and embarrassment (and let’s not get started on the cost). Belfast City is a fantastic little airport with a sense of informality and an absence of the chaos you often get elsewhere. Conveniently located a short ride from the city centre on the eastern edge of Belfast Lough, it also offers stunning views of the water and the hills on the other side. Without Flybe, its future looks uncertain unless others step in. It’s a familiar feeling around the UK’s regional airports, where nerves have been set jangling over their futures. Can they survive in the wake of Flybe’s failure? Those communities served by these airports will hope that they do.