European regional airline Widerøe has flown through the pandemic with impressive agility. For several weeks in early 2020, it wore the crown of Europe’s busiest airline. It continues to maintain an inspiring level of operations today, and a steadfast dedication to serving the communities that rely on its network.
Small planes, big operation
Widerøe is well known in Europe for being a regional airline with small planes but a big operation. With a fleet of 45 regional aircraft, mostly of the Dash 8 variety, the airline provides essential connectivity throughout Norway and beyond.
Around 50% of its routes are Public Service Obligation routes, or PSOs, meaning the government subsidizes its costs in order to keep rural communities connected. But the other 50% are operated commercially. As such, the airline was just as impacted by the travel downturn in early 2020 as every other airline worldwide.
Speaking at today’s CAPA Live, CEO of Widerøe, Stein Nilsen, spoke about the drop in passenger demand, saying,
“When we entered into March 2020, it dropped by 80% overnight, and it took five to six weeks to have some demand in the market again.”
Nevertheless, Widerøe continued to fly. Its large domestic network of 41 destinations meant it wasn’t affected by border restrictions. Despite the low demand for travel, it was important to the communities it served to continue operations. Nilsen noted,
“We have a very special network in Norway. It’s more like a public transportation system in some areas of the of the route, rural parts of Norway especially so … So during the pandemic so we have in fact been flying around 70 to 80% of normal capacity.”
That commitment to maintaining operations throughout the pandemic put Widerøe in a very special situation during April 2020. For the month, it became the busiest airline in Europe.
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Europe’s busiest airline
By early April, Widerøe was the biggest airline in Europe by flights. Eurocontrol’s Director General, Eamonn Brennan, noted that, on April 13th, Widerøe operated 169 flights, more than any other airline in Europe.
#COVID19 some big differences in what flights are taking place in different countries. 76% of Norway’s flights yesterday were domestic with @flywideroe, biggest single operator in European network, operating 169 flights @avinor @Fly_Norwegian pic.twitter.com/uUCE7PwOXl
— Eamonn Brennan (@eurocontrolDG) April 14, 2020
The airline continued to maintain its operations throughout April, while the rest of Europe slowed to almost a standstill. Over the month, Widerøe operated more than 1,200 flights. Its nearest competitor, Aeroflot, operated less than 800. Other usually busy airlines such as Ryanair struggled to exceed even 200.
For Nilsen, it was an unusual situation to be in. he commented,
“It has been a very, very strange situation. I hadn’t in my wildest fantasy imagined that Widerøe would be Europe’s biggest airline.”
Nevertheless, for a brief period, it was. In fact, throughout 2020 and even into more recent weeks, Widerøe has maintained its status as one of the busiest airlines in Europe.
Last summer, traffic began to pick up across Europe. COVID cases were down, borders were open and people were beginning to fly once more. Although every airline added capacity back into their networks, Widerøe was at the top of the table for having the lowest percentage reduction in flights year on year, beaten only by bullish Wizz Air.
As we moved into 2021, borders began to slam shut once more. Widerøe’s domestic network proved once more to put it at an advantage over its competitors. By week three of the year (January 18th), Widerøe was back in the top three airlines in Europe, surpassed only by Air France and Turkish Airlines.
In terms of its activities against the most recent ‘normal’ year (2019), Widerøe has continued to operate at a very strong level. By the second week in April, other regional airlines had driven down their capacity to around 50% lower than 2019. Widerøe continued to operate at just 15% lower capacity than usual.
The Widerøe CEO puts the airline’s success down to having the right planes for the pandemic situation. He said,
“During such an pandemic, when the demands lowers by 80%, it’s a big advantage to have smaller aircraft. I think that has been the key issue for Widerøe to pick up some market share during the pandemic. We had the right aircraft size for this kind of crisis.”
Although Wideroe remains committed to its aging fleet of Dash 8s, it is keenly seeking a replacement. For Nilsen, replacing these turboprops with another fuel-burning aircraft makes no sense, which is why the airline is actively exploring electric alternatives.
Widerøe’s director of regional network, Espen Bakke-Aas Steiro, will be discussing route development and the airline’s operations with Simple Flying’s own Managing Editor Joanna Bailey at AviaDev Europe later this month. AviaDev Europe takes place on June 29th, from 11:00 to 13:00 CEST. Registration is free, so book your place today.