Belfast Telegraph

Bmi staying the course for business customers

By Symon Ross

Airline bmi is confident it can continue to give low cost carriers a run for their money after adapting its offering to the changing travel market.

That’s the view of Dominic Paul, managing director of bmi mainline, who was talking ahead of the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards this Thursday, which bmi is supporting as lead sponsor.

“We’re enormously committed to the Northern Ireland market,” he said. “We’ve been flying to Belfast for 26 years, so we’ve got a long history in the marketplace and traditionally have had a really good relationship with the business community. We carry a lot of business people from the big companies right down to the very small companies,” he said.

“The BT Business Awards seems like a very good way to continue to support the business community. It is supporting exactly the same people who support us when they fly with us.”

The airline was last year bought by German carrier Lufthansa, which has provided added backing to the airline but makes talking about financials more tricky because the parent company is listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange.

What Mr Paul can say is that bmi is “comfortable” with its market share, particularly on the Belfast routes.

He acknowledges that the aviation industry is in one of its most difficult ever periods. Several airlines have gone out of business and larger carriers such as BA are facing industrial action over huge cost saving plans.

“We all know it’s been a difficult year. The Northern Ireland market and London market have been in recession,” said Mr Paul.

“Despite that, we’ve done a lot of things that mean we’ve continued to do well. We’ve increased our market share, we’ve launched a new flexible economy product in the UK and Ireland routes, which is really attractive to business people. Despite the difficult market we’re actually very comfortable with how we’ve |performed.”

As part of a slight restructure of its routes, bmi removed one flight from its core Belfast-Heathrow service last year but still has seven flights a day to London. Mr Paul said the airline could have cut more but saw no advantage in throwing away business built up over many years.

“We’ve talked to a lot of our customers about what they are looking for and think we now have a really balanced seven-a-day schedule, with early morning flights then flights spaced throughout the day. We think we offer the most competitive schedule of any airline flying from Belfast to London,” said Mr Paul.

Belfast-London is a competitive route, where bmi is up against low cost airlines easyjet and Ryanair, as well as Irish airline Aer Lingus and Flybe. Mr Paul believes it is more than holding its own with business and leisure customers.

“The leisure customer generally cares a little more about price so we have to make sure we’re price competitive on the route. We’re different from the low cost airlines in that we don’t charge for baggage, it is included in the fare. The other thing about bmi is that you can connect on to all points in the world. We have a lot of people who fly with us from Belfast City to Heathrow and then connect on to all manner of destinations. Low cost airlines can’t really do that because they don’t have connecting flights,” he said.

The airline, which is part of the Star Alliance network, has also adapted its product offering, ditching business class and introducing a new flexible economy service that includes some of the same services — such as baggage, seats at the front of the plane, lounge access and priority check in — without the high cost.

“I think we’ve been quite smart because we’ve adapted our business over the years. In economy for example, you pay for food and drinks, in flexible economy that is included. The number of customers flying business class has declined in recent years and that’s no surprise. On a short flight people are reticent to pay for a business class ticket.

“Coming up with flexible economy is our way to adapt to a changing market,” he said.

“If non-low cost airlines just stayed as they were for the last five to 10 years, they’d be in trouble. But if you keep adapting to the changing market I think there is potential to co-exist effectively, because we are appealing to a different customer group — be that customers connecting on to the rest of the world or business customers looking for a better schedule and better product.”

The airline continues to champion its base at George Best Belfast City Airport, which it thinks has far greater appeal for many business customers because it is closer to the city centre than Belfast International Airport.

“A lot of our frequent customers really like Belfast City. It has been through a bit of an upgrade, it is close to the city centre, but also the fact that all our flights go to that airport — so people know if they change their flight they can get back to the same airport they left from.”

In general the bmi executive believes the airline has succeeded in aligning itself with the recession-hit times, where people are still travelling, but are being more careful about choosing fares.

“The airline industry isn’t very complicated,” he adds. “If you offer customers the right product, if they trust that you offer a safe and punctual airline, if you’ve got the right product and the schedule and pricing is good, it will work.”

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