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Flybe boss: 'We recognise the importance of SMEs to the Northern Ireland economy'

The boss of airline Flybe on how it's showing its support for small firms in our Business Awards next week

By John Mulgrew

Christine Ourmieres-Widener is the chief executive officer of Flybe, sponsor of the Best Established Small/Medium Business in the 2017 Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank.

The French native took on the role after previous posts including chief global sales officer at American Express Global Business Travel, and almost five years as chief executive of CityJet.

Q: You took on the role of chief executive in January - how is the new job?

A: I've just completed my first 100 days in post and am thoroughly enjoying being back in the airline industry.

Flybe is very different from the previous airline I was with - but in a good way. It's much bigger and, as the largest independent regional carrier in the UK domestic market, operate 53% of these flights. Regional connectivity is at our core and for passengers in Northern Ireland this is essential. I see tremendous opportunity for Flybe in Belfast which is a big base for us.

With eight aircraft based here and almost 200 staff employed, we have plans to improve our product which includes putting the focus on our customers. For example, we have just announced our winter schedule that, for our Belfast customers, features 13 routes with a choice of up to 522 flights per week. Within that schedule, we have amended timings and added extra rotations on existing services to better meet the needs of our passengers.

Q: Why are awards such as the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards important?

A: We have specifically chosen to sponsor the Best Established Small/Medium Business category as it reflects an integral part of Northern Ireland plc.

Whilst SMEs form the backbone of any local economy they so often get overlooked and remain in the shadows of the big corporates.

Awards like this help to recognise and reward the many achievements and successes of the SME sector.

They encourage aspiration and are not only a great morale booster for employee teams but also provide a shop window for potential customers.

By supporting this category, we aim to shine a light on companies which are already playing a significant role and making a positive contribution to Northern Ireland.

Q: What are the challenges facing Flybe?

A: As with every business, we have internal and external challenges.

Internally, the cost of doing business is a constant pressure and anywhere we can strip out costs and streamline operations without losing service or quality we will do it.

Externally there are all manner of things which are not within our control such as political uncertainty and global fuel prices.

However, we can seek to influence decisions which impact us such as air passenger duty (APD) and Brexit.

Flybe continues to fight hard for the abolition of APD which we see as a punitive tax and which has a direct effect on the local economy and of course our passengers.

Air travel must be affordable so that more people can be encouraged to fly.

APD is an additional burden on an already price-sensitive market.

Similarly, we will join our industry partners and be very vocal if the outworkings of Brexit seek to impose restrictions on air travel.

Q: What's next in the pipeline for Flybe?

A: I want Flybe to become the best regional airline in Europe. There is much still to do but I believe that most of the foundations are already there. We have excellent and well-trained people. Our aircraft fleet is now planned to be appropriate to our needs.

My main focus is now on optimising our network. It is not just a question of the choice of destinations, but also about flying at the right times to suit both our business and leisure passengers.

We are also working more closely with our trade partners such as travel management companies and leisure operators who can help to bring direct passengers growth and potentially new charter business.

Shortlist for Best Established Small/Medium Business sponsored by Flybe

  • M&M Contractors
  • Woodfloor Warehouse
  • AES Global
  • Bushmills Inn Hotel
  • McElmeel Mobility Services

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