For those of you not familiar with Exeter, it's what can only be called a pleasant city (pop 118,000) in the middle of England's gorgeous Devon countryside. It's got a rather nice airport which most people only ever see as they drive south past it on the way to what passes for the sun in Britain. And it's headquarters to an airline which is on its way from being the sort of tiny regional operation you'd expect in the circumstances to a carrier that will operate not much short of 100 of Bombardier and Embraer's finest about three years from now.
I'm talking about Flybe - previously British European, Jersey European Airways (JEA) and, further back, even smaller entities - which this morning announced agreement in principle to buy British Airways' regional subsidiary BA Connect. As a result it's about to firm up all its remaining options on E-195s and Q400s, which will give it 26 of the jets and 66 of the props by spring of 2009.
This is not going to be a trivial thing to pull off, but BA, which is desperate to offload an operation that has little to do with its core business these days, is temporarily taking a 15% stake in Flybe to help smooth the way. An IPO is in the offing. But the fact that Flybe has even got this far is an astounding achievement.
In June 1995 we wrote that JEA had recorded a net profit of ｣1.8 million on turnover of ｣56 million after making losses for several years. Think what's happened in the airline industry since then (and who's gone bust). That includes the post-911 meltdown and the low-cost transformation of the UK short-haul market. The man running the airline - Jim French - could have been forgiven in late 2001 for sincerely wishing he was doing just about any other job at all.
What he and his colleagues actually did was continue the then embryonic reinvention of the airline into something that pretty much defied an easy description. It was to be a low-cost, domestic and European regional, flying jets and props, from assorted UK regional bases. A lot of people just thought Flybe had lost its way and didn't give it much chance of survival. Boy were they wrong!
On the whole Jim, who's chairman these days, could care less what the media thinks. (Although he's happy to talk, and I think this piece pretty much sums him up.) But I've got a lot of time for him. What the Flybe team has done is a lesson for anyone in the business - I wish them luck.