Blue Air is targeting a fleet of 50 aircraft within "three or four years" as it builds on its reputation as Romania's leading airline brand by consolidating its presence at foreign bases in Larnaca, Liverpool and Turin.

The privately owned carrier operates 29 Boeing 737s, split roughly half between Classics and NGs – four more aircraft than troubled, state-owned Tarom, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer – and has 12 737 Max jets on order for delivery from the second quarter of 2019.

Blue Air's recent performance and aspirations represent a notable turnaround for the 13-year-old airline, which entered administration in 2013 after its then-parent group went into difficulties over unpaid construction contracts. At the time, Blue Air operated a six-strong fleet from Bucharest and Bacau.

Under new owners, backed by private equity, the airline has since 2014 developed a strategy around establishing an extensive domestic network in a large country characterised by poor road and rail infrastructure, linking Bucharest, Cluj, Constanta, Iasi, Oradea and Timisoara. In addition, it serves more than 30 cities from Bucharest and more than 20 from its other Romanian bases in Bacau, Cluj, Constanta and Iasi.

Blue Air has also established operations at Turin Caselle – moving in after Alitalia's departure with five 737s, handling a million passengers a year across 20 routes – as well as the main Cyprus gateway, where it has three aircraft. A 737-800 has been based at Liverpool since earlier this year, and in 2018 Blue Air will begin flying two Italian routes from Sardinia's Alghero airport, under a public service obligation contract.

Further European beachheads are possible. "We are analysing all the opportunities outside Romania," says chief commercial officer Tudor Constantinescu, who adds: "We expect a lot of co-operation from any airport, and it is not just about money." Around a third of Blue Air passengers currently do not fly to or from Romania, and Constantinescu expects this proportion to grow.

He dislikes the term "hybrid" to describe a business model under which Blue Air has adopted features traditionally associated with both full-service and no-frills airlines in a market where it competes aggressively with fast-growing eastern European specialist Wizz Air as well as local rival Tarom.

For instance, Blue Air provides a complimentary meal service on its longest routes from Larnaca, and the ability to prepay for meals on other flights. Cultural expectations have played a role in its decisions. When it launched routes from Liverpool it began offering free food, but "because the UK is a mature, low-cost market, passengers were happy to pay", says Constantinescu.

Blue Air also offers through-ticketing on its own flights and is interlining with other carriers, including TAP and Alitalia. At the same time, the airline operates all-economy cabins on its all-737 fleet, and passengers pay for check-in baggage, although those paying premium fares have access to lounges and can check luggage for free. Tickets are sold through travel agents as well as on its website.

"We do not have the size of a Ryanair or Wizz, so we can be very specialised," said Constantinescu when he spoke to FlightGlobal at Blue Air's offices in a smart new business campus near Bucharest's Henri Coanda International Airport. "We don't think of ourselves as hybrid. Most of what we provide is similar to a full-service carrier."

While the proportion of its passengers who connect through a Blue Air hub is small – some 20,000 out of 500,000 a month – Constantinescu expects this to grow as customers begin to realise the available options. "Our network is designed as point-to-point, but it means passengers can connect from London to Larnaca every day through Bucharest – our direct service is five days a week," he says.

In addition, he believes there is a "big potential" in interlining. Blue Air, which joined IATA last year, offers connections with Alitalia, TAP and Air Moldova, and is "working to implement codesharing" for access to long-haul flights and in-country networks through the Blue Air booking system. He adds: "Interlining adds a lot of value for us. We are putting a lot of effort into building relationships [with other airlines]."

Constantinescu says Blue Air is "paying more attention to high-value customers" by introducing a loyalty scheme that will be promoted on a soon-to-be-relaunched website. Registered regular customers who pay the highest fares will be automatically allocated the best seats, with middle seats left empty where possible.

Blue Air has begun to phase out its Classics – three -400s will leave the fleet this year – and is adding NGs, with aircraft numbers set to reach 32 by next summer, says Constantinescu. These will be a mix of owned aircraft and others under financial and operating leases.

Unusually for an emerging carrier, Blue Air also carries out its own and some third-party MRO, employing 350 people at a facility at Bucharest's downtown Baneasa airport. The carrier plans to establish a second maintenance centre at Henri Coanda International.

So far, by focusing on its domestic market and underserved European airports such as Larnaca, Liverpool and Turin, Blue Air has managed to fly largely under the radar of the threat posed by Wizz Air and low-cost giants Ryanair and EasyJet. How much more scope the Romanian outfit has to grow what it calls its "smart flying" offering in the increasingly crowded skies of Europe remains to be seen.

Source: Cirium Dashboard