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Editor's Viewpoint

Decisive action now needed to get lost Flybe routes back in the air

Editor's Viewpoint


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Given the recent turbulent weather it is perhaps an apt metaphor to say that Flybe has been grounded for good by a perfect storm - poor financial management that saw it lose money for most of the past 10 years, dropping passenger numbers because of the coronavirus threat, and the lack of a bailout from either its owners or the Government. (Pete Byrne/PA)

Given the recent turbulent weather it is perhaps an apt metaphor to say that Flybe has been grounded for good by a perfect storm - poor financial management that saw it lose money for most of the past 10 years, dropping passenger numbers because of the coronavirus threat, and the lack of a bailout from either its owners or the Government. (Pete Byrne/PA)

Given the recent turbulent weather it is perhaps an apt metaphor to say that Flybe has been grounded for good by a perfect storm - poor financial management that saw it lose money for most of the past 10 years, dropping passenger numbers because of the coronavirus threat, and the lack of a bailout from either its owners or the Government. (Pete Byrne/PA)

Given the recent turbulent weather it is perhaps an apt metaphor to say that Flybe has been grounded for good by a perfect storm - poor financial management that saw it lose money for most of the past 10 years, dropping passenger numbers because of the coronavirus threat, and the lack of a bailout from either its owners or the Government.

This is a huge blow to the regional aviation industry and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, from where Flybe operated on 14 routes. Indeed, the impact of the airline going into administration is most keenly felt at Belfast City Airport, where it accounted for 80% of flights.

The business community, leisure passengers and students all depend greatly on Flybe for flights to all other regions of the UK and for onward flights from major airport hubs in England and Scotland.

All of a sudden that connectivity is at risk, even if the management of Belfast City Airport sound confident that other airlines will step into the breach. Northern Ireland is right at the periphery of Europe, but has it felt so remote as it does today?

Loganair has said it will take over two routes to Scotland, and airport management say they have had enquiries about every other route - sometimes multiple enquiries about particularly profitable routes - and believe positive announcements will be made in the coming weeks.

However, it must be accepted the regional airline industry is hugely competitive and margins are tight.

If coronavirus continues to have an effect on passenger numbers airlines may be more concerned with safeguarding their existing business rather than be the saviours on other routes.

We must also remember that many people who have already booked flights with Flybe may well find themselves out of pocket if they are deemed to be unsecured creditors now that it has gone into administration. As well, their plans to visit relatives, conduct business, go to university or connect with other international flights could be jeopardised.

This is yet another test of the mettle of the Executive at Stormont, which has found itself in the midst of a storm of hard decisions since returning to work after a three year absence.

Special pleading on our reliance on air travel will carry little weight at Westminster, which will face the same calls from throughout England, Wales and Scotland, where air travel was often seen as a faster and cheaper alternative to trains or buses.

The problem according to some experts is the lack of a cohesive aviation strategy and the additional costs of air passenger duty. It is unlikely that APD would be devolved, and the only hope is that it could be abolished on a national scale.

We have had much fanciful talk in recent months of the feasibility of building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, but the harsh reality is that one of the greatest links between here and the rest of the UK is now parked at airports. The real task is to get that link - involving different airlines - back in the air.

This is a time for the Executive to show that it can work cohesively on a cross-party basis. The effect on the economy of coronavirus and the loss of a major passenger carrier should not be underestimated.

The double blow comes at a time when the province's economic health is far from its strongest, and the hope is that politicians and the wider community will make a compelling case to other airlines to fly to our rescue.

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