The Rise And Fall Of British Regional Carrier Flybe

Earlier this year, UK airline Flybe collapsed – a victim of not only the global health crisis of 2020 but also stiff competition from other carriers in recent times. Let’s look at the rise and fall of this regional carrier.

Flybe collapsed in March of 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Going back 40 years

The inception of Flybe took place on November 1st, 1979, and was launched in the form of Jersey European Airways after the merger between Intra Airways and Express Air Services. The two companies previously operated close to the English Channel.

Flybe grew its operations within the United Kingdom, earning its first route from the Channel Islands to London in 1991. These flights flew passengers between London Gatwick Airport from both Guernsey and Jersey using new Fokker F27 turboprops.

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By 1993, the carrier reached a point where it felt comfortable offering a business class and further expanded its fleet, acquiring four British Aerospace 146s. These tiny quadjet airplanes would operate routes to Belfast and Birmingham.

In both 1993 and 1994, the airline earned the title of “Best UK Regional Airline,” and by 1997, Flybe became an international airline offering services to Paris through a deal with Air France.

bae146 flybe
While many of its aircraft have been turboprops, the airline also operated the small quadjet BAe 146. Photo: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons 

Embraer fleet expansion

In 2010, Flybe was listed on the London Stock Exchange. Raising capital through the issuance of shares, the airline ordered $1.3bn worth of Embraer aircraft, amounting to 35 ERJ 175s. The order came with options for a further 105 of the type, signaling massive growth plans and moving away from turboprops towards jets.

This would be a critical turning point for the carrier.

The Embraers turned proved to be less efficient than Q400s on the routes it operated, and turned out to be an expensive commitment for the airline. By 2014, only 11 had been delivered. Flybe subsequently announced that it would cancel most of its remaining order, removing 20 jets from Embraer’s order books.

Flybe Embraer E175
Flybe’s Embraer experiment was an expensive and risky venture, which turned out to be a big mistake. Photo: Flybe.

In addition to its less-than-fruitful Embraer purchase, Flybe had to deal with a failed IT systems upgrade. This cost the newly public firm millions.

The final years

In 2018, Flybe lost more money while trying to compete with Scottish airline, Loganair. Loganair was freed of its franchise agreements with Flybe and went to operating more independently.  A price war ensued between the two regional airlines, costing both airlines millions.

Flybe had once operated the largest fleet of Dash 8 turboprops in the world. Photo: Getty Images

Additional factors in the airline’s later struggles were the rising cost of jet fuel and the UK’s Air Passenger Duty (APD), both financial burdens on the carrier. The latter added a base cost of £26 to its flights, making them uncompetitive.

The nail in the coffin

While the airline was already in trouble, the events of 2020 sealed the carrier’s fate. Before the health crisis, there were indeed numerous efforts to keep it afloat. This included a change in ownership and appeals to the government for assistance.

However, it seems that coronavirus was the ultimate cause of the airline’s failure. In fact, even Virgin Atlantic, joint owner of Flybe, blamed the virus for the airline’s collapse. In a statement to Simple Flying, it said,

“Sadly, despite the efforts of all involved to turn the airline around, not least the people of Flybe, the impact of COVID-19 on Flybe’s trading means that the consortium can no longer commit to continued financial support.”

Did you get a chance to fly with Flybe while it was operating? Please share your experiences with us in the comments.