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  • ROUTES: Guide to airline start-ups and groundings in 2012

ROUTES: Guide to airline start-ups and groundings in 2012

While delegates began arriving in Abu Dhabi to discuss new route opportunities, in North America there was another reminder of the harsh realities the sector faces when Delta's Cincinnati-based regional operator carried out its last flight.

The airline is the latest to close its doors in a year which has already seen other long-established operators such as Spanair and Malev fold. Between them, the three carriers had racked up more than 125 years of flying.

While reasons for the three carriers ceasing flights differ - Delta shutting its in-house regional carrier reflects the US major's changing approach to the regional model - it points to a difficult environment for airlines.

Pluna CRJ 900 Mathieu Pouliot/AirTeamImages.com

 Mathieu Pouliot/AirTeamImages.com

Uruguayan carrier Pluna was amongst the carriers to suspend flights during the summer

While the summer months typically offer some respite for troubled operators, the grounding of several carriers underlines that there are likely to be further airline casualties this year.

Italy's Wind Jet, OLT Express Poland and Uruguayan operator Pluna were among those forced to suspend flights during the summer, while Air Nigeria joined the list in September.

Notably, those airlines forced to suspend operations include a number of larger operators than in recent years. The number of failures in 2011 was relatively small, with few well-known names on the list.

There were more casualties in 2010, with the grounded Mexicana by the far the biggest operator, and in 2009 when SkyEurope and Flyglobespan were among the failures. This continued the failures which accompanied the banking crisis in 2008, when a string of familiar names went under.

Given the bleak growth picture and heavy debt burden on European economies, it is not surprising to see several airlines from this region on the casualty list. The headline failures of Spanair and Malev were followed by those of Scandinavian operators Cimber Sterling and Skyways, and more recently OLT Express Poland and Wind Jet.

Most of the closures have been the result of an inability to secure new investors, although others, such as Comair, reflect a strategic decision. For some, efforts continue to secure new investors to resume flights or for successor operators.

On the other side of the coin, there have been a number of start-ups in 2012. Much of the activity surrounds the Asia-Pacific low-cost sector, for example Scoot, Peach and Jetstar Japan, as established network and budget carriers look to spread the model across new markets in Asia.

Other high-profile launches include low-cost operator VivaColombia and the Stelios Haji-Ioannou-backed African venture FastJet. In Europe, where there have been few airline start-ups since the credit crunch, Spanish-linked carrier Volotea launched in April.

BIG IN JAPAN

Rather like buses, Japan has waited ages for a low-cost carrier only for three to come along at once. Peach Aviation was the first to launch in March this year, and has been followed by Jetstar Japan in July and AirAsia Japan in August. All three carriers feature familiar names looking to stake a claim to the low-cost travel market in Japan.

Jetstar Japan A320-200 Andrew Hunt/AirTeamImages.com

 Andrew Hunt/AirTeamImages.com

On the network player side, All Nippon Airways is a shareholder in both Peach and AirAsia Japan, while Japan Airlines and Qantas are involved in Jetstar Japan. Both have turned to established low-cost operators, AirAsia and Jetstar respectively, for expertise in the sector.

Peach launched operating two domestic flights out of Osaka's Kansai International airport. The airline operates a fleet of four Airbus A320 aircraft and has another six on order. The airline, a joint venture between Japan Airlines and Qantas Airways, began domestic Japanese operations out of Tokyo's Narita airport on 3 July. The carrier has five Airbus A320s and will place its sixth and seventh aircraft at its second base, Osaka's Kansai airport, from which it will begin operations in October.

AirAsia Japan launched flights out of Tokyo Narita International airport at the start of August, initially operating services to Fukuoka, Sapporo and Okinawa. It will operate a fleet of four A320s by year-end.

Miyuki Suzuki, chief executive of Jetstar Japan, says the Japanese population's response to low-cost travel has "far exceeded the expectations" of its management team.

"There was scepticism about whether the low-cost model would take off in Japan. There was a perception that the Japanese public wanted quality service and freebies and that they would not take to the low-cost carriers. That has not been the case. The take-up rate has far exceeded all of our expectations," she says.

Peach has said about 30% of its passengers had never flown before and Suzuki says the figure is broadly in line with what Jetstar Japan is seeing as well. The passenger profile is predominantly Japanese and consists mostly of those who travel for leisure, she adds.

"We are opening up new patterns. People are flying from Sapporo to Okinawa via Narita, even though they can do that flight directly on the full-service carriers. Many passengers will fly direct if it is on business but if it is for a family holiday, for example, it is far cheaper to do it with us with one stop than on the full-service carriers or on the fast trains," says Suzuki.

SCOOT

Scoot 777-200 Andrew Hunt/AirTeamImages.com

 Andrew Hunt/AirTeamImages.com

Singapore Airlines long-haul, low-cost subsidiary Scoot began operations in June on flights to Sydney using Boeing 777-200s. It has since expanded its network to cover destinations including Bangkok and Tokyo and will launch flights in November to Shenyang and Qingdao. The airline has plans to grow its fleet to 14 aircraft by 2016.

VOLOTEA

Spanish regional low-cost start-up Volotea launched operations at its first base, Venice Marco Polo airport, in April, with three domestic round-trips to Palermo, Cagliari and Brindisi. These were swiftly followed by Bilbao, Malaga, Budapest, Krakow and Bordeaux, and in the summer it expanded with flights from Nantes and Ibiza.

Barcelona-based Volotea was created last year by Carlos Muñoz and Lázaro Ros, the founders of Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling. The airline operates nine Boeing 717s.

VIVACOLOMBIA

Start-up low-cost carrier VivaColombia launched flights in May, based at Colombia's second-largest city of Medellin. VivaColombia launched with flights to Bogota, Cartagena and Cali and has already received regulatory approval to operate on 32 domestic routes covering 18 destinations in its first year of operations. The airline operates four Airbus A320s.

VivaColombia also plans to launch international flights in its first 12 months of operations to destinations in Central and South America. The airline is being set up with initial capital of more than $15 million by shareholders Irelandia, the investment arm of Ireland's Ryan family, Mexican ground transportation company IAMSA, Colombian conglomerate Grupo Bolivar, and Grupo FAST, which is led by former Avianca president Juan Emilio Posada. IAMSA and the Ryan family also hold stakes in Mexican low-cost carrier VivaAerobus.

AFRICA WORLD AIRLINES

Ghanaian start-up carrier Africa World Airlines launched operations on 21 September. The airline is a joint venture co-financed by Hainan Airlines parent HNA Group, China-Africa Development Fund, Ghana's Social Security and National Insurance Trust, and Strategic African Securities. HNA is understood to be a controlling stakeholder in AWA but it is unclear how much each party has invested in the carrier.

VivaColombia A320 Santiago Narayana/Wikimedia Commons

 Santiago Narayana/Wikimedia Commons

Colombian start-up low-cost carrier VivaColombia launched flights in May from Medellin with a fleet of four A320s

AWA is based at Kotoka International airport in Accra and has two Embraer ERJ-145s in its fleet. It will initially operate domestic services from Accra to Kumasi, Takoradi and Tamale, before increasing its fleet size and opening up services to Abidjan, Abuja, Lagos and other major cities in west Africa.

HNA's Zhang Jiuhua has been appointed as chairman and chief executive of the airline. It is understood that several other top management personnel in AWA will also be seconded from HNA. AWA is the first aviation investment made by a Chinese group in Africa.

FASTJET

FastJet, the Pan-African low-cost carrier launched by EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, will begin operating in November from its first base in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The airline will take delivery of its first aircraft, an Airbus A319 in October. "Our initial focus will be on east Africa, with the airline's first base at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the A319 aircraft has already been approved by the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority," says FastJet chief executive Ed Winter "This will be followed by a second base in Nairobi, Kenya, once the A319 is approved there.

The airline also plans to launch its operations in Accra and Luanda once it has established itself in east Africa.

FastJet will initially operate alongside Fly540, the Nairobi-based airline acquired in July by Rubicon, an investment firm linked to Haji-Ioannou. It plans to use the airline as a springboard into east and west Africa, with the Fly540 brand and its fleet of ATR 72-500s, Bombardier Dash 8s and CRJ100s aircraft to be phased out.

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