Earlier this year, Connect Airways, the consortium owned by Cyrus Captial Partners (40%), Stobart Group (30%) and Virgin Atlantic (30%) purchased regional carrier Flybe. The plan is to turn Flybe into a regional carrier for Virgin.
Flybe has been a regional carrier in the UK and Europe for the past 40 years. They have a fleet of 69 aircraft that include:
- Bombardier Q400
- Embraer E-175
- Embraer E-195
Flybe had become the “purple” airline with its fleet of 54 Q400 aircraft flying in a distinctive purple livery. Even though they had an impressive route system, they were experiencing financial pressure like many other European carriers.
Previously, Virgin tried to operate a regional carrier know as Virgin Red which ended in 2015. Virgin will have another opportunity to fold a regional operation into the Virgin network. The goal is for Virgin Connect to reflect the innovation and entrepreneurship of Virgin’s wider brands, putting their customers first while offering better value. This means extending the Virgin customer experience to the Flybe acquisition as part of the rebranding next year.
Here is a statement from Connect CEO, Mark Anderson:
“We are hugely excited by this milestone in our airline’s 40-year history. We will remain true to our heritage and reason for being, which is offering essential regional connectivity to local communities.
“At its heart, Virgin Connect will be passionately focused on becoming Europe’s most loved and successful regional airline. It will offer travel that is simple and convenient with the personal touch. Our customers will naturally expect the same exceptional travel experience as they do with other Virgin-related brands. Whatever their reason for flying, we want our customers to feel loved and know we will always put their needs first in every decision we take.
“As part of the Virgin family, we now have a tremendously re-energised team. From here on in, we invite our customers, partners and the communities we serve to join us on every step of this exciting journey!”
Goodbye Purple, Hello Red
The operations migration into the Virgin system will take place next year. Part of the transition will be to repaint the existing aircraft from purple to a red Virgin Connect livery. I can imagine that there will be a learning curve for successful integration to the Virgin customer care system for the existing Flybe employees. For the time being, Flybe flights will continue booking services at flybe.com.
Will it Work This Time For Virgin?
A well managed and integrated regional airline is invaluable for mainline carriers. The regional airlines’ main purpose is to bring passengers from secondary airports to make mainline connections at primary airports. An excellent example of this is the Alaska Air Group.
Mainline flights are operated by Alaska Airlines using Boeing 737 and Airbus A-320 aircraft.
Regional flights are operated by Horizon Air using E-175 jets and Q400 turboprop aircraft.
Regional aircraft excel at operating “long and thin” routes. These routes typically transport a passenger load under 100 people over medium length distances. A good example of a long and thin route is Portland (PDX) to Albuquerque (ABQ). Horizon operates this flight non-stop for Alaska using E-175 jets which features 12 first class seats. The regional operated E-175 operates for substantially less than a mainline aircraft. This translates to a low load factor percentage to stay profitable. If the regional flight can grow traffic, Alaska could upgrade operations to a mainline aircraft. If the route loses money, they can easily shift the regional aircraft to a different market.
Hopefully, Virgin Connect will successfully integrate and enhance the Virgin network.