Europe’s regional airlines face challenging future; how will bmi regional, CityJet, Minoan Air and OLT Express fare in 2013?

The European regional airline market continues to evolve with some interesting developments in the last few months. These include:

Not good things:

  • Air France’s announcement that it plans to merge its regional subsidiaries Airlinair, Brit Air and Régional into a single entity, leaving the future of CityJet unclear.
  • The collapse of Danish carrier Cimber Sterling on 3 May 2012.
  • The demise of Scandinavian carrier Skyways on 22 May 2012.

Uncertain things:

  • bmi regional being sold by IAG to private investors.

Exciting/positive things:

  • OLT Express announcing plans to operate point-to-point services from Dresden and Münster/Osnabück this winter (although many of these routes have now been deferred until next summer).
  • Minoan Air, a Greek Fokker 50 operator, starting operations and announcing plans to start five new routes from London Oxford Airport in early 2013 (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Edinburgh and Munich).
  • Bern-based SkyWork Airlines continuing to develop its European network from the Swiss capital.

The definition of a regional airline has become debatable (especially since the advent of regional jets). According to the membership of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), a regional airline can be one of many things. The leading ERA member airlines in terms of passenger numbers so far in 2012 include so-called flag carriers (airBaltic and Olympic Air), members of global alliances (Aegean Airlines), wholly-owned subsidiaries of flag-carriers (Brit Air, KLM Cityhopper, Widerøe), independent airlines operating on behalf of other carriers (Air Nostrum, CityJet) or completely independent airlines operating their own networks (Binter Canarias, Malmö Aviation). Curiously, Europe’s acknowledged biggest regional airline, Flybe, is not a member of the ERA.

ERAA member airlines Passengers carried in January - June 2012 (millions) (Load factor)

Source: ERA

As can be seen from the graph, regional airlines tend to have lower average load factors (typically less than 70%), a natural result of operating smaller aircraft, and also the variation in demand associated with operating more business-focused networks. Monday morning and Friday evening flights may be easy to fill but it is significantly harder to find passengers for Wednesday mid-day flights. Resilient UK regional airline Eastern Airways has reported an average load factor of just 47.7% in the first half of 2012. To compensate for this the airline charges, for example, around £500 (€600) for a return trip between Bristol and Aberdeen (via Leeds) if booked at very short notice.

Mixed fortunes of Europe’s regionals

Although many of the smaller regional airlines use relatively fuel efficient turboprop aircraft these may not be considered appealing for longer sectors of over 90 minutes. With smaller aircraft, lower average sector lengths, and relatively low utilisation, unit costs for regional airlines tend to be quite high. Combined with a focus on business passengers this makes it difficult to stimulate demand with lower fares. ERA data for the first half of 2012 shows mixed fortunes for the organisation’s member airlines. The Romanian regional Carpatair has seen passenger numbers drop by 30%, CityJet by 28%, Olympic Air by 14%, airBaltic by 12%, and Eastern Airways by 11%. However, Air Nostrum, Estonian Air, Golden Air, KLM CityHopper, Malmö Aviation, Montenegro Airlines and Widerøe have all reported year-on-year growth in passengers.

bmi regional announces two new routes!

IAG, the new owner of bmi British Midland, were unable to find a buyer for the airline’s low-cost subsidiary bmibaby, but were successful in selling bmi regional to Sector Aviation Holdings. The airline operates a fleet of 14 49-seat Embraer ERJ 145s and four 37-seat Embraer ERJ 135s, and has already announced two new routes (Manchester to Antwerp, and Bristol to Aberdeen) that will start at the end of October. The Manchester-Antwerp route was operated by CityJet on behalf of Air France until the middle of last month, while Aberdeen-Bristol was previously served by Eastern Airways until the end of September 2011. The airline’s winter schedule currently comprises the following routes from UK airports:

  • Aberdeen (ABZ) to Bristol (NEW!!), Esbjerg, Groningen, Manchester and Norwich.
  • Bristol (BRS) to Aberdeen (NEW!!).
  • East Midlands (EMA) to Brussels and Frankfurt.
  • Edinburgh (EDI) to Brussels, Copenhagen, Manchester and Zurich.
  • Glasgow (GLA) to Copenhagen.
  • Leeds/Bradford (LBA) to Brussels.
  • Manchester (MAN) to Aberdeen, Antwerp (NEW!!), Edinburgh and Lyon.
  • Norwich (NWI) to Aberdeen.

The recent demise of Air Southwest and “duo” shows that it’s hard work to make money in the regional airline business – so anna.aero applauds bmi regional, its new owners, the many new jobs it has pledged to create, and the new routes it has indeed already launched.

Minoan Air’s London Oxford ambitions

If taking over existing routes on an independent basis is a challenge for bmi regional, then starting new routes from a regional airport that has never served these markets is an even braver decision. Minoan Air, a recently launched Greek-based Fokker 50 operator, recently revealed plans to create a base at London Oxford Airport from early 2013. Initially it hopes to serve Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Edinburgh and Munich. Of these only Edinburgh has previously been served from Oxford, by the short-lived Varsity Express. The Munich service appears to be targeting BMW employees as the German company’s Mini subsidiary has its main production line in Oxford.

Bern baby, Bern; SkyWork helps put Swiss capital on the aviation map

An interesting new addition to the European regional airline scene is SkyWork Airlines based in Bern, Switzerland. It has grown rapidly in the last couple of years and now has a fleet of five 31-seat Dornier 328s, and five 72-seat Q400s. Thanks to a raft of new low-frequency leisure routes, the airline will serve 34 destinations from the airport next summer, making it by far the dominant airline at the picturesque airport that serves the Swiss capital.

Many questions left unanswered for 2013

The European regional airline market is bound to evolve further in 2013. Some of the questions which will be answered next year include:

  • Will Flybe continue to expand its European operations in the Nordic region?
  • What will become of CityJet?
  • How will bmi regional cope as an independent, unaligned airline?
  • Will Minoan Air’s London Oxford base be successful?
  • Can OLT Express re-invent itself successfully as a regional point-to-point carrier using Fokker 100s?
  • With Skyways out of the way, will Sverigeflyg and Malmö Aviation flourish in Sweden?
  • Will the likes of Aurigny, Darwin Airline, Eastern Airways and Intersky continue to find niches in which to operate profitably?

Comments

  1. PB says:

    I fear that Bmi regional will collapse quiet quickly now they are alone and Minoan will abandon the Oxford route within six months. VLM and Fly Baboo had routes with average load, and I expect Minoan will do the same

  2. Just to point out, Eastern Airways still serve BRS from ABZ, and this service has not ended – contrary to to the comments in this article.

  3. James Pearson says:

    “Just to point out, Eastern Airways still serve BRS from ABZ”

    Indeed, but with a stop in LBA in both directions.

  4. James Pearson says:

    I should add that T3′s BRS-LBA-ABZ is around 2h 15m against 1h 25m with BMR, so quite a significant differential for such a short (milage-wise) city-pair.

    Pricing-wise, T3 is, as usual and based upon its more price-inelastic customers, expensive with no or very few ‘discounts’. In comparison, BMR has some really good deals – from £49 one-way all-in – which should help fill its aircraft and maximise per-sector revenue from business and leisure travellers.

  5. David Johnson says:

    The official line from Oxford airport on flights to Edinburgh, Dublin and Amsterdam is

    At the moment nothing has been decided but if you look on our website any future plans will be on there.

    This does not indicate a great deal of support from Oxford for Minoan !

  6. David Johnson says:

    On the day that OLT were due to launch their Dresden-London route, a little surprising that OLT should cancel the flights with almost no notice. More surprising that at the end of today (15 Oct) they should also cancel flights on the same route for 16 and possibly also 17 October as well. Maybe the route will actually launch on 18 October instead…

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