Pilots plan R-lines takeover

 - May 8, 2008, 5:10 AM

As one French regional airline bites the dust, another is ready to take its place, operated by the company’s former pilots. R-Lines has been placed into “legal observation,” which means it will almost certainly be declared bankrupt at the beginning of next month following its failure to meet its debt obligations.

According to one of R-Lines’ 93 employees, two-thirds of them pilots, the airline’s financial management proved “disastrous.” R-Lines was founded in 1999 by Flandres Air, then an Air France regional subsidiary, to operate a 19-seat Beech 1900 on its behalf. Based first at Valenciennes, on France’s northern border with Belgium, R-Lines later transferred to Angers-Marcé airport in central France. At the same time, Air France merged Flandres Air, Regional Airlines and Proteus Airlines to form Regional Compagnie Aérienne Européeune.

Most of R-Lines’ activity following the merger involved operations for Regional. It then flew on 14 secondary regional routes, clocked 22,000 flight hours a year and employed 115 people. Last year it posted revenues of e16 million ($15.6 million).

Its situation began to decline rapidly last autumn as Regional abandoned routes needing aircraft of fewer than 20 seats, instead concentrating on its own, more profitable 30-seat Embraer Brasilias. A spokesman for R-Lines’ chapter at SNPL, the country’s main pilot union, said that the “managing director did not anticipate Regional’s plan to withdraw the company from the routes in question, although it had been more or less obvious for several months. He seemed to be happy just to be a subcontractor rather than a fully fledged operator.”

By June this year R-Lines flew only six routes but still employed the same number of pilots. A management representative puts part of the blame on an 18-day pilot strike, which led to several flight cancellations.

The market for routes using aircraft with fewer than 20 seats has already attracted several former R-Lines pilots, who hope to soon launch Europ’Air. The new company, to be headquartered at Saint-Viard, near Nantes, in western France, stands as a candidate to operate the Beech 1900s on at least three of the routes that will be left free after R-Lines officially declares bankruptcy next month.