BA franchise NJI to expand outside Italy with 737s

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Fledgling British Airways (BA) franchise carrier National Jet Italia (NJI) is launching flights to Athens in January in a surprise expansion of its network beyond Italy.

The move, coupled with ambitions to upsize its fleet from British Aerospace BA 146 regional jets to Boeing 737s, marks a significant departure from the original business plan for the Rome Fiumicino-based carrier, which launched in July this year with a focus on feeding Italian domestic traffic to BA, initially through services to Catania and Palermo in Sicily.

The new twice daily service between the Italian and Greek capitals is to be followed in February by a three - and possibly four - times daily link from Rome to Verona. The route will initially be operated with 100-seat BAe 146 jets under British World Airlines air operators certificate (AOC). A fourth and fifth BAe 146 are due for delivery in January and February 2001.

But one or more Boeing 737-300s, also to be operated under the BWA AOC, will be employed on the Athens service for the summer schedule when higher demand will require larger aircraft, says NJI director of networks and pricing Victorio Scabbia.

He says that NJI can "count on BA's structure in Greece" and BA will also act as a source and receiver of connecting traffic in Rome, But with an eye to competition from Alitalia he adds: "We cannot afford to just be a regional player. It is a limitation when you are competing with bigger carriers."

"Business is going well because other carriers have reacted to our presence" Scabbia adds, referring to moves such as the Italian flag-carrier's decision to add an additional frequency to Catania for the winter schedule operated with Boeing MD-80 and MD-81 aircraft.

He adds that while each of NJI's routes ought to take around a year before generating profits, the break-even load factor of 45% has already been exceeded on several occasions.

"We had a very good load-factor in summer, but October and November were a bit weaker, as you might expect," he says, adding that that was not necessarily negative since lower margin leisure passengers were replaced with high yield business clients. Consequently, NJI has cut two frequencies from the eight times daily schedule to the two Sicilian destinations for the winter timetable.

In a separate development, two weeks ago the carrier appointed a new managing director, Charles Phelps-Penry, a former NJI project manager for BA, replacing Brian Bailey, who has returned to BA in the UK. "Penry has been with us from the beginning," comments Scabbia.