In late December Air Samarkand and Mexicana became the latest new players – or at least reinvented airline in the case of the latter – to begin flights in 2023. While overall it has been a relatively quiet year for new entrants, plenty more remain in the works. Meanwhile a number of carriers were forced to halt flights in the early part of the year, though there were few big name failures – with the grounding of Indian low-cost carrier Go First probably the most high profile airline collapse
On 26 December state-owned start-up Mexicana completed its maiden flight, more than 13 years after services under the brand were last flown.
The original Mexicana suspended operations in October 2010, and the heritage of the name make this one of the more notable start-ups during a year of relatively low-profile new carrier activity.
The Mexican government had in May announced plans to establish a new state-backed carrier under the Mexicana brand, later setting out ambitions to operate 10 Boeing 737-800s in a single-class configuration initially out of Mexico City’s secondary Felipe Angeles international airport.
The creation of a state-owned carrier, Mexicana is run by the country’s defence ministry, has prompted fears from some quarters of government intervention in a market in which low-cost carriers have largely successfully developed in the intervening years. That perhaps is fuelled by interventions the state made in October in imposing capacity cuts at Mexico City’s older Benito Juarez International airport.
In reviving Mexicana, the move follows a wider trend of re-establishing former airlines brands – albeit with limited success so far. UK regional carrier Flybe relaunched operations in April last year, but was an early casualty this year when it ceased flights and went into administration in January after less than a year of flights.
Plans to revive another UK carrier, Monarch, were waylaid almost as soon as they emerged in August
Meanwhile ongoing efforts to revive Indian carrier Jet Airways, which have been in the works pretty much since it collapsed in early 2019, have now been pushed into 2024.
Another note of scepticism around Mexicana’s launch plan highlights a particular challenge faced by start-ups this year, namely securing aircraft and crew in an environment where shortages mean both are in high demand. Mexicana’s aim, announced in early August, was to have a fleet of 10 737s within three months and to begin flights at the start of December.
Mexicana was at least able to launch flights before the year ended. Cirium fleets data lists the airline as having one 737-800 in service. Local reports suggest a second aircraft will join the fleet shortly, but it is unclear how quickly the airline will ramp up to a fleet of 10.
BONZA BEGINS WITH BIG AMBITIONS
One of the more bullish start-ups this year is Australian operator Bonza. The airline began operations in January targeting an initial network of 27 routes to 17 domestic cities with a fleet of four aircraft.
However, by July, Bonza – Australia’s first independent low-cost operator in more than a decade – was forced to cut back on expansion in a significant network rejig that saw five routes cut and frequencies on another 20 reduced. At the time, the airline said it made these cuts to “allow us to build in additional spare capacity” within its fleet, so that “we have a buffer”.
Bonza chief executive Tim Jordan though told FlightGlobal at the end of August that the cuts were relatively small given the scale of its launch. “The ramp up we went through from January through May was the biggest aviation ramp up in Australian aviation history,” he tells FlightGlobal.
Bonza, which is backed by investment firm 777 Partners, is targeting new segments in the Australian domestic market, and all but two of its initial 27 routes were unique to the carrier. Jordan believes this is key to the carrier’s strategy. “We’re creating a brand-new market that is not coming out of anybody’s pockets,” he says.
The airline in December took its fleet to six after wet-leasing a pair of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft from Canadian carrier Flair Airlines – in which 777 Partners is also an investor.
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The most recent new addition to the skies is Uzbekistan carrier Air Samarkand, which carried out its first passenger flight on 29 December.
Air Samarkand is initially starting with charter flights from Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, before launching scheduled services in the spring to popular destinations including Turkey, points in south-east Asia, China and others.
The carrier has obtained an ICAO code – UZS – as well as the callsign ‘Sarmarkand’, and has started building a fleet with an initial Airbus A330-300 and A321. It expects two further Airbus narrowbodies, incLuding an A321neo, to join the fleet shortly.
BermudAir was among the more intriguing start-ups this year. The airline attracted headlines when it launched in September with a view to operating an all-premium model.
The carrier, founded by Adam Scott who has previously worked to get all-premium operator Odyssey Airlines airborne, had planned to ultimately deploy Embraer 175s configured in all-premium, 30-seat configuration.
However after just a few weeks operations the airline shifted to dual-class cabins. “The strategic shift in service enables the airline to honour its commitment to Bermuda, while also responding to evolving market dynamics and preliminary guest feedback from its phased launch,” the carrier says.
Another carrier though has launched all-premium services this year. Luxury leisure airline Beond began flights in November linking the Maldives to Munich, Riyadh and Zurich using an Airbus A319 configured with 44 premium seats The airline will add routes to Dubai and Milan Malpensa next March.
Another eye-catching start-up, US regional carrier Connect Airlines, though faces a fresh battle to get airborne. Originally slated to launch in 2022, Connect has been strugging to meet Federal Aviation Administration certification requirements as it neared deadlines to launch flights.
In November the US DOT terminated Connect’s certificate citing dormancy, much to the frustration of chief executive John Thomas. ”The frustrating thing is that we have done everything required to get a [Part] 121 certificate,” he told FlightGlobal in late November.
The Bedford, Massachusetts-based company has been attempting to launch scheduled passenger service using De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400s, starting with routes from Philadelphia and Chicago to Billy Bishop Toronto City airport.
But Thomas says it is exceptionally difficult to secure a new air operator’s certificate (AOC) in the current regulatory climate. He points to Breeze Airways as the only successful US applicant in recent years that did not acquire an existing certificate from another company.
Notably the airline, which is appealing the DOT decision, argues its operations are in the public interest because it plans to drastically reduce carbon emissions with retrofitted turboprops through a partnership with Universal Hydrogen.
”We have a plan over the next 10 years that will actually reduce annual CO2 emissions by 5 million tonnes a year, and I would suggest that that is probably the largest single decarbonisation initiative in the global aviation industry today,” says Thomas.
MORE START-UPS TO COME IN 2024
Plenty more start-ups are in the works for the year to come.
ANA’s new medium-haul operator Air Japan is set to launch flights in February, initially serving Bangkok and Seoul from Tokyo Narita. The new operator will deploy Boeing 787s in a two-class 300-seat configuration.
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Meanwhile ANA’s Star Alliance partner Lufthansa is next summer set to launch flights with its new short- and medium-haul carrier City Airlines, operating out of its Frankfurt and Munich hubs. While initially operating Airbus A319s, Lufthansa in December ordered 40 Airbus A220-300s for the new unit. The first of these A220s are due for delivery in 2026.
This summer will also see the first flights from Maltese successor carrier KM Malta Airlines, which is being established to replace struggling national flag carrier Air Malta. The latter will operate its last flights on 30 March and be replaced by the new operation.
KM Malta Airlines has now opened for bookings from 31 March, using a fleet of eight Airbus A320neos operating 284 weekly flights across 17 routes – an operation broadly similar to the one it is replacing.
Another new starter next summer is Ireland-headquartered ACMI provider Fly4. The airline is a joint venture operation between Polish leisure firm Enter Air and travel giant TUI Group and will begin services initially providing capacity for TUI.
“We are working with the Irish aviation authority through the process, hoping that we’ll get our certificate in quarter one, with a view to start operating in quarter two for TUI initially with a fleet of four 737-800s,” explains Fly4 chief executive Jochen Schnadt. While its shareholders will be “anchor customers” for the operation, Schnadt says it is aiming to secure long-term contracts with third party customers under it’s long-term growth plans.
Other eye-catching start-up plans include a reboot of defunct US regional airline ExpressJet, plans for which could see it re-emerge as a charter carrier under new ownership, initially flying passengers on one Boeing 777-200ER.
The regional carrier was an initial casualty of the pandemic, suspending operations in September 2020. The regional airline briefly re-emerged a year later as Reno, Nevada-based Aha – standing for “air-hotel-adventure”. It had planned to provide both scheduled and chartered flights, but filed for bankruptcy about a year after launching.
UK operator Global Airlines created its share of headlines with plans to launch transatlantic flights in 2024 using Airbus A380s. It is intending to configure its A380s with 450-470 seats, and initially operate to New York JFK and Los Angeles from London Gatwick.
While the carrier is eyeing a three-class service – featuring first, business and economy cabins – it would commence operations using a pair of A380s, with a preliminary configuration intended to speed its entry before upgrading the interior cabins to their final full layout. The airline in November recruited a division of Avia Solutions Group to refurbish the cabin of its initial aircraft.
Another high-profile start-up creating its share of headlines this year, Riyadh Air, is not due to begin flights until 2025. The ambitious Saudi start-up, which aims to have a network of more than 100 destinations by the end of this decade, has already ordered up to 72 Boeing 787s and is expected to shortly announce a major narrowbody aircraft order.
“We’ve got a roadmap because we know when we are going to go live in 25,” chief executive Tony Douglas told FlightGlobal in September. ”We don’t want to turn all the cards face up now, because then you have played your whole hand, [but] what we are trying to do is build engagement, build excitement.”
AIRLINE FAILURES DURING 2023
Alongside Flybe, another short-lived European carrier to collapse early in the year was Flyr. The Norwegian carrier had launched flights in June 2021. Over the first six months it built a fleet of five Boeing 737s, including the Max, with load factors at the end of 2021 reaching about 54%. But the persistence of virus variants hampered air transport recovery and Flyr had to cope with heavy losses.
While the airline continued to expand – reaching a fleet of a dozen – losses continued and ultimately further fund-raising efforts failed, forcing it into bankruptcy after flying for less than 600 days.
Notably two Colombian carrier failed in quick succession early in the year.
Viva Air suspended operations in February amid mounting financial challenges. While it had appeared that a rescue could emerge in the shape of Avianca’s move to acquire the airline, the Star Alliance carrier dropped its interest citing what it called “onerous conditions” set out by the Colombian regulator in order to approve the deal.
Colombian budget carrier Ultra Air only launched operations at the start of 2022, but it too was forced to suspend flights at the end of March this year amid mounting financial challenges. It too saw a potential rescue deal, in Ultra’s case with JetSmart, fail to complete. The Chilean low-cost carrier later outlined plans to launch its own operation in Colombia.
Malaysian start-up MYAirline ran into problems even faster than Ultra. The A320-operator only began flights in December last year, but was forced to suspend operations in October amid increasing financial woes. MYAirline, which had its AOC revoked in October, in November said it still retained four aircraft from a fleet of 10 A320s.
US start-up Red Way meanwhile pulled the plug on its flights after just two months. The airline launched in June with a focus on flying to leisure destinations throughout the USA. Red Way handled the customer-facing aspects of the business – such as marketing, ticket sales and checking baggage – while flights were operated by Miami-based charter carrier Global Crossing Airlines (GlobalX).
Probably the biggest carrier to collapse in 2023 is Indian low-cost carrier Go First. The latter was the third biggest operator in the Indian domestic market in 2022, albeit a relatively distant third behind market leader Indigo Airlines in holding only a near 9% market share.
Go First suspended flights and filed for insolvency protection at the start of May laying the blame on “ever-increasing” failures of Pratt & Whitney engines, which it said left half its Airbus A320neo fleet grounded. The carrier subsequently launched legal action asking a US judge to force the engine-maker to comply with provisions in a March arbitration decision, though the latter said it was complying with the arbitration ruling and that the airline had ”a lengthy history of missing its financial obligations to Pratt”.
Administrators for the airline, which remains grounded, in July launched a tender seeking a new investor for the operator. In December Indian low-cost rival Spicejet – which has been battling financial challenges of its own this year – declared its interest in bidding for the carrier and created a merged carrier.