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Neeleman's reported US start-up could shake up US industry

The reported plan by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman to start a new US airline using Bombardier CSeries aircraft could shake up an industry characterised by consolidation and a notable lack of new entrants.

The plan, should it prove true, would also mark a notable win for Bombardier ahead of its move to transfer majority ownership of the CSeries programme to Airbus on 1 July.

Industry publication Airline Weekly reported on 17 June that Neeleman is raising $100 million and has secured rights to buy 60 CS300s in a bid to launch a new US carrier called Moxy Airways.

Bombardier, however, declines to address the reports, and Neeleman did not respond to requests for comment from FlightGlobal.

"We do not comment on rumours," Bombardier says.

Perhaps a play on the word Moxie – meaning determination and pep – Moxy Airways reportedly aims to get off the ground in 2020.

The timeline coincides exactly with when Bombardier and its new partner Airbus intend to open a CSeries assembly site in Mobile, Alabama.

Neeleman's reported plan is to operate point-to-point flights from smaller cities – places like Trenton, Providence, Fort Worth, Burbank, Gary (Indiana) and the Long Island cities of Islip and Farmingdale.

But unlike ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs), Moxy reportedly aims to offer customers a more upscale product with more legroom and fewer fees.

That strategy is telltale of Neeleman, says Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International.

"He has this weird idea that if you treat people right, they will fly you again," Boyd says.

The CSeries could work well under such a model because it has a larger – and more comfortable, Bombardier would argue – cabin than competing aircraft, observers say.

Neeleman helped found Morris Air and Canadian carrier WestJet, and founded JetBlue Airways, offering customers leather seats with more legroom and free, live seat-back television.

After leaving JetBlue, Neeleman founded Brazil's Azul in 2008, growing that carrier into a powerhouse with a fleet of ATR turboprops, Embraer regional jets and larger gauge Airbus aircraft.

News of Neeleman's Moxy plan follows many years of airline consolidation in the US, which has left the industry in the hands of a relative few number of players.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines collectively carried 80% of domestic US seats in 2017, according to FlightGlobal schedules data.

Seven other airlines – Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Virgin America carried most of the rest, data shows.

Low-cost carriers in the USA also primarily operate Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies – large aircraft optimised for relatively large markets, notes George Dimitroff, head of valuations at FlightGlobal's Flight Ascend Consultancy.

As a result, those carriers leave "a lot of smaller destinations out," he says. "I suspect this is the opportunity Neeleman wants to capitalise on".

Bombardier has said its CSeries burns 20% less fuel per passenger than competing aircraft.

"The CSeries is competitively dangerous to other carriers," Boyd says.

Neeleman's reported plan comes amid a competitive battle between Embraer and Bombardier, both of which have been seeking to land orders from large US airlines, including JetBlue, Spirit and major carriers.

JetBlue is considering the future of its E190 fleet, but has delayed a decision amid Airbus' pending acquisition of the CSeries programme and news that Boeing is considering an alliance with Embraer's commercial aircraft division.

Dimitroff suggests that JetBlue's hesitancy could have opened an opportunity for Neeleman to step in.

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