What will Lufthansa do with bmi’s 24 Heathrow destinations? (and the rest of its Norwich-to-Tehran 60-airport network?)

Heathrow’s new East Terminal being built for the Star Alliance airlines, including bmi, where Lufthansa is considering its options for the future of its latest acquisition. bmi’s routes include an exotic mix of Almaty, Baku, Damascus, Freetown, Riyadh, Tehran and Yerevan contrasting with its conventional domestic and short-haul services. Its thrice-daily Hannover route uses Heathrow’s smallest aircraft, the 37-seat ERJ-135.

The airline now known as bmi is still thought of by many in the industry (fondly) as British Midland. After all, the airline’s head office remains in a stately home (Donington Hall) close to the proposed venue of the British Grand Prix from next year, next to East Midlands Airport. However, the focus of its route network has long been London Heathrow, where it is the second biggest carrier (after British Airways naturally) in terms of flights and seat capacity.

Since its charismatic boss, Sir Michael Bishop, decided last year to exercise a so-called ‘put’ option to sell the airline to Lufthansa, the airline’s longer term future has been uncertain. Lufthansa, whose own position is not as strong as it was a year ago, is contemplating how best to integrate Austrian, Brussels Airlines and bmi, and there is considerable speculation about what may become of bmi.

bmi: three airlines for the price of one

There are three fundamentally different airlines operating under the bmi brand. bmi mainline operates a fleet 30 A320-series aircraft and three long-haul A330s. Its main base is at London Heathrow from where it serves a mix of domestic, European and Middle Eastern destinations, the latter inherited from its acquisition of BMed in 2007. Direct services include flights to Almaty, Baku, Damascus, Freetown, Riyadh, Tehran and Yerevan. Some of these services also operate on to Addis Ababa, Aleppo, Dammam, Jeddah, Khartoum and Tbilisi.

Then there is bmi regional which has a fleet of 10 Embraer regional jets, six ERJ-145s and four ERJ-135s. It carried around 650,000 passengers in 2008 with a major base in Aberdeen. It was also used to operate domestic routes to Heathrow from Durham Tees Valley, Jersey and Leeds/Bradford, all of which it dropped at the beginning of the current summer season. It still operates flights from Heathrow to Aberdeen, Brussels and Hannover with its ERJs.

Image: The smallest aircraft operating scheduled services at Heathrow
And there it is: The smallest aircraft operating scheduled services at Heathrow.

Finally, bmibaby, which launched in early 2002, transports around four million passengers annually, using a fleet of around 20 737s based around the UK in Birmingham, Cardiff, East Midlands and Manchester. According to UK CAA data the bmi Group of airlines carried 9.6 million passengers in 2008 at a load factor of 66.8%.
Between the three airlines a total of 60 destinations are served worldwide though none in North America after the airline’s Manchester routes to Chicago and Las Vegas were dropped earlier this year.

Aircraft type (airline) Fleet size 2008 Pax carried* Load factor
Airbus (bmi) 33 4,446,983 62.8%
Boeing 737s (bmibaby) 20 3,875,016 75.3%
Embraer (bmi regional) 17 647,251 62.2%
Total 70 8,969,250 66.4%
Source: Derived from UK CAA Aircraft Utilization Data for 2008
* Passenger figures here relate only to those flown by bmi on its own aircraft.

It has been suggested that Lufthansa might sell bmi regional to Flybe who have already successfully absorbed British Airways’ regional carrier BA Connect while bmibaby with its fleet of 737s and focus on non-London bases might be of interest to Jet2.com. The most valuable parts of bmi’s mainline operation are probably its Heathrow slots which many airlines would probably be interested in.

Tel Aviv: bmi’s 6th biggest route from Heathrow

Chart: bmi’s top 12 routes from Heathrow - Weekly departing seats v competitors
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 3 August 2009
Image: Ex-Marx and Spencer: Peter Spencer
Ex-Marx and Spencer: Peter Spencer, Managing Director, bmi at the launch of Heathrow to Moscow Domodedovo services last December. Kiev services also began this April building on the theme of routes to ex-Soviet republics – it also serves Almaty (Kazakhstan), Baku (Azerbaijan), Tbilisi (Georgia) and Yerevan (Armenia).

Analysis of current schedule data reveals that bmi operates non-stop to 24 destinations from London Heathrow, including just five in the UK (having dropped Durham Tees Valley, Inverness, Jersey and Leeds/Bradford in the last two years). All of these remaining domestic routes are among the airline’s top 12 routes (by weekly seat capacity) from Heathrow.

Other short-haul European destinations such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Dublin also feature prominently. In 2005 bmi also operated services to such major European city-break type destinations as Alicante, Lyon, Madrid, Milan Linate, Nice and Paris CDG. Naples flights were started in March 2006 but have since been removed from the schedules.

Among the airline’s more exotic destinations Tel Aviv (sixth), Moscow Domodedovo (eighth), Amman and Beirut also make the top 12. Other longer-haul destinations that have been tried and found wanting in recent years include Ankara, Ekaterinburg and Mumbai.

Among bmi’s top 12 routes it has less than 50% of the total capacity offered by all airlines on nine of the them. On Belfast it should be noted that bmi serves the downtown Belfast City airport while its only rival, Aer Lingus, operates to Belfast International.

Image: Back BMI and win, win, win
Leaving Las Vegas (to quote Sheryl Crow): bmi long-campaigned to enter Heathrow’s lucrative transatlantic market, but the A330s originally acquired for these flights are now being used on routes to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Sadly long haul services from Manchester, featuring Chicago and Las Vegas, ended in the Spring.

Transatlantic ambitions delayed

For many years Sir Michael Bishop and bmi campaigned vigorously for the right to start transatlantic services from London Heathrow. Until recently this was forbidden under the old ‘Bermuda 2′ agreement, but last year the market was finally opened up and bmi then decided it was not the right time to venture into what became an increasingly competitive market as the likes of Continental, Delta and US Airways all moved some or all of their transatlantic flights from Gatwick to Heathrow. Thus the long-haul A330s, once envisaged for transatlantic flights, are now being used on routes to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.


  1. Patrick says:

    Call me a nerd (surely not?), but I think the baby Embraer in the photo is a 145 rather than an (even smaller!) 135.

  2. Arthur Dent says:

    According to the Sunday Times of 30 August 2009 Lufthansa has “jettisoned” two bmi directors – Peter Spencer (MD of bmi mainline) and Martyn Bridger (bmi mainline commercial director). It says that Spencer will be replaced by Dominic Paul who was formerly Head of Business Development at Go before it was taken over by easyJet, so has previous experience of having to deal with new bosses …

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