Increasing competition and pressure on costs has led to some deep restructuring of European airlines, with an attendant move to higher-capacity aircraft and absorption of many regional carriers into national carriers. In Austria, where members of the European Regions Airline Association meet this month for the group’s annual general assembly, former regional-airline Tyrolean Airways has been subsumed into flag carrier Austrian Airlines, leaving the Innsbruck-based Welcome Aviation Group (which includes Tyrol Air Ambulance) as the only airline representing the country, along with general-assembly host Salzburg Airport.
As Austrian adopted its lower cost structure across its business, Tyrolean has become perhaps the first European regional airline to achieve long-haul status (if only by default rather than design). Tyrolean regional/short-haul operations for Austrian include non-stop services linking Salzburg with Austrian capital Vienna, plus a further 95 connecting destinations beyond and to the Greek island Zakinthos.
Apart from those Tyrolean services, flights provided by non-ERA member InterSky account for the only other regional operations at Salzburg. Tyrolean’s administration has begun the process of moving from its original headquarters at Innsbruck to Vienna, leaving essentially only the Tyrolean engineering base to maintain the turboprop fleet.
ERA member Welcome Aviation Group comprises Dornier 328 operator Welcome Air, recently defunct regional operator Air Alps and Tyrol Air Ambulance (TAA), according to Manfred Helldoppler, Welcome Air/TAA joint managing director and a former managing director of Tyrolean Airways. Owned by Remi Finanz- und Verwaltungs, Welcome Air, in turn, owns 94.3 percent of Tyrol Air Ambulance and 76 percent of Air Alps, which entered liquidation in August, having failed to find new investment several months after ceasing operations with two Dornier 328s.
Itself operating a pair of Dornier 328 turboprops, Welcome believes that the trend to larger aircraft will offer future opportunities to provide service with smaller aircraft on “thin” routes. One 328 flies Linz-Vienna services for Austrian Airlines; for private charters, the 328s can seat 18 passengers and accommodate six litters in the air-ambulance role.
Acknowledging a limited market for Dornier 328s, Helldoppler said that as seat-cost considerations have led larger airlines to concentrate on aircraft with more than 80 seats, there remains a continuing ad hoc demand for aircraft/crew/maintenance/insurance (ACMI) operations of smaller aircraft. He sees the out-of-production Dornier 328 as an ideal 31-passenger regional turboprop to meet any such demand, but recognizes that a 50-seater will eventually replace the German-made turboprop.
For almost 18 months, Welcome Air has operated Dornier 328-100 ACMI services for Austrian, providing up to four flights/day between Vienna and Linz, the country’s third largest city. The services represent the only Austrian Airlines flights not operated by Tyrolean.
“We operated additional routes for Austrian in July and April 2012,” said Helldoppler.
“We also did ACMI for InterSky in 2012 for three weeks. In August this year we [were] operating different routes almost daily [for] SkyWork Airlines out of Berne [while SkyWork’s five 328s went through heavy maintenance]. We do regular ad hoc ACMI flights for Private Wings, including corporate-shuttle flights for automaker Volkswagen.”
Will Welcome Aviation re-enter direct regional-airline operations? “Welcome Air will definitely not operate any scheduled regional flights under its own risk,” Helldoppler averred. The changing market means that the seat-mile costs of 30-seat regional airliners have become too high.
A Dornier 328Jet flown briefly in Welcome Air livery proved “too expensive” to operate and offered “not much difference in speed,” added Helldoppler.
Before ceasing scheduled service last November, Air Alps–24-percent owned by entities in the Italian state of South Tyrol–had operated Bolzano-Rome as an Italian public-services obligation route. The operator did not receive an invitation to renew the contract in time and did not reapply.
The TAA ambulance operation provides worldwide repatriation to Europe for approximately 3,000 people each year, mostly on behalf of insurance companies, using a 328 and various business jets.