Kevin O'Toole/ROME

There was no stinting as Debonair travelled to Rome to celebrate its second year of operations. Franco Mancassola, the flamboyant chairman and founder of the UK low cost airline, was on excellent form in his native Italy, with a classic stream of good stories, outlandish metaphors and a generous helping of easy charm.

Yet the birthday was not all smiles. The airline, now publicly quoted, has made further heavy losses and analysts worry over whether the strategy will, as promised, come good this year.

Mancassola refuses to panic. "The airline industry is no place for the fainthearted. If you tremble at your first losses then you shouldn't be in the business," he says.

After a colourful aviation career spanning more than 30 years, he is perhaps entitled to stay calm. According to family myth, his love of aviation, not to mention taking a risk or two, was already evident when he was a small boy in Italy during the war. When others ran for cover in the air-raid shelters, he was out on the street looking at the aircraft.

He recognised that he did not have the patience to become a pilot, but eventually discovered his "aviation vocation" in the early 1960s within the burgeoning UK charter market, having originally arrived from Italy to learn English.

Even in those early days, when Europe was only beginning to edge towards union, Mancassola said that he had an "instinctive feel" that the world was getting smaller and that air travel was the key.

His first big break came from the other side of the Atlantic. Mancassola had taken a job running an off-line London office for Continental Airlines. As such he was required to meet the head of the great carrier on a tour of the UK. It turned out to be one of those "life-changing" pieces of good fortune that seem to have punctuated Mancassola's career. The visiting boss, surprised to find a London office at all, asked the young manager what he did. Mancassola said he did not know either, but began expounding his vision for regional cross-border travel.

Weeks later, he was summoned to the USA and asked to put his ideas into action. So it was that he found himself unceremoniously deposited in Mexico, charged with starting up a market there for Continental. In the process he fought and won a battle in the US courts to take over new route rights - the loser was Texas Air and the infamous Frank Lorenzo. They met again a year or so later when Lorenzo walked into Continental.

Mancassola, to his surprise, escaped the Lorenzo management purges, but was soon lured away by the offer of helping to turn around World Airways, then struggling on the point of bankruptcy. The attraction was a wad of stock certificates. "We knew that in a few weeks' time either they would make us rich or we'd be using them to paper the bathroom," says Mancassola. The wallpaper, in fact, turned to gold and, flush with his new-found riches, Mancassola set off to Hawaii to set up his own airline. Armed with Japanese backers and his own cash, Discovery Airways was born, with a fleet of British Aerospace 146 regional jets.

When controversy grew over the foreign ownership, the Japanese withdrew and Mancassola again found himself cashing in some "expensive wallpaper".

Mancassola instead turned to Europe, initially at the behest of an Asian investor looking to save Dan-Air in 1992. This came to nothing, but he was convinced that there were prospects in Europe's emerging single air market.

Financing was a struggle, but eventually Debonair took to the air in mid-1996 with leased 146s and a base at London Luton- first choice London Gatwick was already full. By then the carrier was no longer alone - easyJet, Virgin Express, Ryanair and others were forging on with no-frills services.

Yet Mancassola argues that his vision was always different from these champions of the US no-frills experiment. First, while Debonair has cut fares, it has not been dogmatic in cutting out the extras, retaining refreshments and reasonable comfort. Mancassola was convinced that Europeans were "too sophisticated" for the US low fares experience of "negative seat pitch" and service levels based on "survival of the fittest".

The second innovation was to build up a truly European network from the outset. It not only flies direct from Luton to Europe's regional airports, but also cross-links the city destinations, developing routes such as from Germany to Barcelona and Rome.

Mancassola confesses that it was an expensive way to start. "What we've done is much more costly and long term than if we'd simply flown out of the UK," he says, and argues that other low cost operators are only now finding out how expensive as they expand into Europe. Yet he believes the gamble will pay dividends as the markets develop.

He admits that Debonair will have to pause and make money before the next spurt of growth. In a tight aircraft market, the airline is struggling to find new 146s to add to its eight-strong fleet, although he hopes they will be joined by Europe's first Boeing 717s in late 1999. He says the total fleet will not go much beyond 20 aircraft.

Mergers and acquisitions are also being "actively pursued" as an option, with Mancassola attempting to form a network of partnerships with other airline minnows. Neither is he averse to flirting with the major European airlines. Since April, Debonair has flown wet-lease services for Air France on the Paris-Brussels shuttle route. Talks with other majors are in train.

Mancassola recognises the acid test will take place over the next 12 months. If a start-up makes losses for the first couple of years, that can be seen as an investment, he says. By the third year, it is a loss.

Source: Flight International