Britannia Airways is considering an all Airbus fleet to expand its new German charter market service. The carrier, which launches its operation with a flight from Berlin-Schonefeld on 3 November using a Boeing 767-300ER, could decide to switch to the European built aircraft by 1999.

The foray into the German market could be followed by the end of the century by further international moves as the British charter operator's sister company Thomson Travel looks for expansion in Europe, and the airline itself considers other opportunities in emerging holiday markets.

The Berlin-based operation will start with a single German-registered 767 switched from the carrier's UK fleet for the European winter season. This will be joined next May by a second 767 - leased from International Lease Finance - as operations expand to Munich.

The company has a minimum five-year deal with fast-growing German tour operator Frosch Touristik International and is currently talking to other independent holiday companies about charters for long and short haul services.

Richard Manley, Britannia's commercial director, says that by the 1999 summer season it hopes to have "at least four widebody and possibly two narrowbody aircraft" in operation with all-German cockpit crews.

The airline is looking at maintaining its all-Boeing 757/767 fleet in the UK but switching to Airbus for its German operation. Manley says Britannia is particularly interested in the crew commonality advantages of the Airbus A330-200 and A320 families which cannot be matched by a Boeing 767/737 mix - the 757 being too big for many of the short-haul charters that Britannia has in mind. Manley,however, has reservations about filling the extra 60 seats the A330-200 has available compared with the 767-300.

Britannia starts the selection process next month and plans to have the aircraft in place by 2000. "I would be disappointed if we didn't have 12 aircraft in the market by 2002, with a split of around 50/50 between wide-body and narrow-body aircraft, although that depends on the mix of tour operators under contract", he says.

In the interim the carrier will be able to test the Airbus products, having agreed a "damp" lease with TransAer of Ireland for three A320s to operate for Thomson on UK routes unable to sustain a 757. The TransAer deal is just for the summer of 1998, and it is not clear if there are any long term fleet implications in the move. Britannia quit this market several years ago when it disposed of its 737 fleet, replacing those aircraft with 757s.

The Berlin-based arm of Britannia is now awaiting clearance from the German authorities for its air operator's permit, having passed all the major hurdles except the issue of whether it qualifies as a European airline. Britannia is recognised by the European Commission as a British company even though its ultimate owner is Canadian. There have been recent rumours that Thomson is to sell its holiday unit.

The move into Germany poses a threat to the dominant Lufthansa charter subsidiary Condor and LTU. Manley says that even in the depressed German holiday market Britannia can undercut rival seat prices by 20%."They were horrified at our entry because they have had the domestic market stitched up for years and have been milking the German consumer", he says.

Outside Germany, Britannia is watching what Thomson does in the European holiday market. The company, the largest UK holiday operator, recently formed an international arm to seek expansion into markets such as Scandinavia, the Netherlands and even Germany. Manley says any Thomson expansion would "clearly give opportunities to Britannia". Outside Europe, he says, the carrier is also looking at projects in emerging markets, mainly in Asia.

Source: Flight International