Possibly the only surprise over the collapse of UK regional operator Flybe is that its demise had taken so long, given that the carrier had experienced uncomfortably close brushes with failure over the previous two decades.
Analysis of the airline’s financial statements show it made pre-tax losses in seven of the 10 years to 2018, the last full year before the acquisition by Connect Airways.
Those losses amounted to some £150 million and far exceeded the total pre-tax profits of £35 million.
Flybe emerged in 2002, revamped from the former British European – and previously Jersey European – operation in a bid to tackle the threat to its business posed by low-cost carriers.
Former chief executive Jim French subsequently admitted to Airline Business that the airline had been “going bust”, as the industry reeled in the post-September 2001 downturn.
The airline, operating some 30 aircraft, chose to adopt similar practices to budget carriers, and take advantage of online proliferation, to challenge rivals including BMI and British Airways.
It embarked on a regional route expansion, investing in a mix of Bombardier Q400 turboprops and the new Embraer E-Jets, before boldly taking over British Airways’ problematic loss-making regional operation BA Connect – committing to additional new aircraft to replace the BA Connect fleet.
Flybe ambitiously aimed to operate 80 aircraft by 2010, and plotted to establish itself as a regional presence in continental Europe.
Its audacity reached a peak in 2010 when it unveiled an agreement for up to 140 E-Jets – banking on a strategy of expanding into European services, such as feeder-flying for Finnair – and floated on the stock exchange.
But Flybe’s ambition was shortly curbed by rising fuel prices, unexpected disruption from volcanic activity, and a difficult UK market with declining passenger numbers.
Within three years of the landmark E-Jet order the airline was discussing deferral of deliveries, and a new leader, Saad Hammad, encountered a situation similar to that which had confronted Jim French.
“It was a business in deep crisis, facing mortal danger, facing the abyss,” he told Airline Business, adding that just days of free cash had remained when he took over in 2013.
Flybe underwent an urgent restructuring to take control of costs, culling routes and bases, ditching its loss-making Finnair venture, and slashing excess capacity. The airline turned its focus away from expensive jets and back towards efficient turboprops, ditching its E-Jets and taking more Q400s instead.
While it secured a funding injection through a share issue in 2014, the airline was unable to halt a pernicious cash drain, and fleeting single-digit pre-tax profits were washed away by heavy double-digit losses in subsequent years as it laboured under the burden of its aggressive fleet commitment.
Flybe’s fleet peaked at around 85 aircraft in mid-2017 before the capacity pressure started to ease, but with the damage already done the airline started seeking interest from potential buyers the following year.
Consortium Connect Airways’ acquisition of Flybe in 2019 amounted to a rescue of the airline, providing it with desperately-needed funds.
But while Virgin Atlantic, part of the consortium, had outlined plans to turn Flybe into a feeder for its long-haul operations – under the Virgin Connect name – the regional airline’s situation deteriorated further, forcing shareholders and the government to intervene to shore up its finances at the beginning of this year.
This effort subsequently proved futile in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak. Virgin Atlantic disclosed on 4 March that it was having to take cost-saving measures, including a recruitment freeze and broad pay cuts, to deal with the impact. Without the resources to keep it afloat, four decades after its founding, Flybe finally ran out of time, money, and luck.