Flybe Taciturn on Reports of Rescue Talks with UK Government

 - January 13, 2020, 1:54 PM
A Flybe De Havilland Dash 8-400 takes off from Birmingham International Airport in the UK. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-SA) by Hawkeye UK)

Flybe’s future again appears in doubt following a report that Britain’ s largest regional airline has engaged in secret talks with the Department for Transport and Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy to determine whether the government could provide or facilitate emergency financing to keep it afloat. Flybe did not outright deny the report, first published in Sky News.  In a statement to AIN, the airline said it “continues to provide great service and connectivity for our customers while ensuring they can continue to travel as planned.” The company added it does not comment “on rumor or speculation.”

In a letter to staff, obtained by the BBC, Flybe CEO Mark Andersen maintained the same message, while contending the airline’s leadership team “is very focused on continuing to turn Flybe, soon to be Virgin Connect, around.” He urged employees not to be distracted by “unhelpful and unproductive” speculation and to “continue to work and support each other as a team to deliver what we know we can do.”

Citing the uncertainty of Brexit as one of the reasons for its financial difficulties, Flybe in 2018 revealed it had come close to bankruptcy. Early last year, it sold for a mere £2.8 million to the Connect Airways consortium consisting of UK long-haul airline Virgin Atlantic, the Stobart Group—which owns several UK regional airports including London Southend, Ireland’s ACMI provider Stobart Air, and a ground handling business—and investment firm Cyrus Capital Partners. The partners committed to injecting new funds in the turnaround and build the 40-year old airline into “Europe's most loved and successful regional airline” under the Virgin Connect brand. The airline would also serve as a feeder for Virgin Atlantic’s long-haul services, particularly at Manchester Airport and London Heathrow, even though Flybe holds only a very limited number of slots at London’s main gateway.

Flybe operates 68 aircraft—54 De Havilland Dash 8-400s, three Embraer E195s, nine E175s, and two ATR 72s—on a network spanning 71 airports across the UK and Europe. It carries some 8 million passengers a year.

Unions reacted with anger and disbelief that yet another UK airline could fail and that rescue talks with the government appear ongoing without staff consultation. “According to reports, the airline could have collapsed over the weekend, which would have been devastating news. This is an appalling state of affairs and we demand that the owners of Flybe and the government departments involved stop hiding and talk to us about Flybe,” said Brian Strutton,  general secretary of pilots’ union BALPA.

Unite, the UK’s largest union, also demanded an urgent meeting with the company and called for government intervention. “The government must demonstrate that it has learned the lessons from the collapse of Monarch, which it failed to apply during the collapse of Thomas Cook,” Unite assistant general secretary for transport Diana Holland said. “It is essential that the government plays an active role in helping to ensure that Flybe continues to operate.”

The GMB union warned that up to 2,000 direct jobs and a further 1,400 jobs in the supply chain are at risk. “Our economy is tanking. The last thing we need is an airline to go under—especially one which provides a vital public service in some parts of the country,” the union’s national officer Nadine Houghton said. “If government is serious about infrastructure investment in the regions, it must step in and protect what already exists.”