Flybe’s new route investment at Cardiff Airport is a good deal for now, but what about the future?

10:34, 19 March 2015
OPINION BY MARTINEVANS
Aviation expert Martin Evans explores Flybe’s investment in new routes at Cardiff Airport but asks what will happen over the long-term

In the airport business it helps to have a short memory.

There are a limited number of airlines to do deals with so if one airline stabs you in the back, the next morning you offer to sharpen the blades for them.

So it was no great surprise when Flybe announced a triumphant expansion at Cardiff Airport thirteen months after abandoning some of the airport’s most important routes at very short notice.

The routes
This was a deal that both parties really needed but of the ‘eleven’ new routes, how much is really new?

Well, two routes, Belfast and Jersey were already being flown by flybe.

Dusseldorf had already been announced as a replacement for Germanwings.

Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paris Charles de Gaulle abandoned by Flybe a year ago, with Edinburgh and Paris Orly already served by City Jet leaving Cork, Dublin, Milan, Faro and Munich as the new routes but of these Dublin is already served by Aer Lingus.
The deal
Route network isn’t the only positive from this deal. Flybe has signed a ten year agreement with Cardiff Airport to base two aircraft at Cardiff.

Having based aircraft is very important, it brings jobs, it brings more convenient arrival and departure times and it helps the marketing of routes. It shows a commitment to the airport and more aircraft can be added later for future growth.

This was a deal that had to be done by Cardiff Airport.

Challenges
The opportunity to become a base for a low cost airline now seems to have vanished.

The weakness at Cardiff is not only having a very strong summer market but a very weak Winter market but also competition from Bristol Airport where the UK’s two biggest low cost airlines have bases.

This is unfortunate because the smmer market at Cardiff is better suited to a low cost airline.

However, the traditional Spanish market is well served by low cost airline Vuelling who, by not having aircraft based at Cardiff, can offer more seats in summer than in winter.

The lack of a based low cost airline makes Cardiff an ideal base for Flybe. They don’t want to compete directly with the low cost airlines who use larger aircraft and have lower costs of operation.

Their business model is to use smaller aircraft offering high frequency services between major cities or routes that are too small for the low cost airlines.

An airport that doesn’t have a based low cost airline needs connections to major UK and European cities and as Europe’s largest regional airline, flybe is the best option available.

Related story: Chief executive of Flybe on the Cardiff investment.

Financial rationale
Flybe also had reasons to need this deal. Flybe has been undergoing a restructuring to take costs out of the business. As part of the restructuring they have grounded a complete fleet of 14 aircraft, the Embraer E195.

These aircraft are too large for high frequency services in the UK market but too small to compete with low cost airlines on leisure routes.

It is unusual strategy for an airline to ground a fleet if there isn’t a definite disposal plan, if the aircraft can cover their operating costs any contribution towards the lease costs would be better than nothing.

Even though the aircraft are grounded, the lease costs still have to be paid.

It was sensible of Flybe to grab the opportunity of earning some revenue with them at Cardiff.

However, we will have an airline at Cardiff operating two aircraft that it doesn’t want to operate any more because it is the wrong aircraft for the UK market.

The problem then becomes one of how is the airline going to grow the business at Cardiff over the ten years of the agreement?

Five of the E195 fleet have already been disposed of and if flybe see an opportunity to dispose of the rest of the fleet will they still retain two of the aircraft for Cardiff or take the more sensible option of disposing of all of them?

Will they extend the lease on these aircraft in 5 years time or will they be returned? What if there can be further expansion of the Cardiff base, will another aircraft type be operated?

Future options
What is probable is that in the second half of this agreement we will see smaller aircraft being operated, probably turboprops.

Clearly the deal works for both parties in the short term, Cardiff gets more routes and passengers, flybe earns revenue from two unwanted aircraft.

However, we should expect the route network to evolve over the next ten years to one that uses smaller aircraft flying more frequently.

That would be not be a bad outcome for the business traveller but it would be one that doesn’t serve the leisure market that Cardiff is currently so dependent on.

If Flybe doesn’t develop a profitable business at Cardiff Airport over the first few years of this agreement with a strategy that fits in with the rest of the UK business then we can expect the knives will be kept polished for future use.

Sourced from walesonline

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