Article: Flybe 1979-2020

Starting in 1979 as Jersey European Airways, Flybe, with its headquarters and maintenance facility being located in Exeter, has always had a strong connection to the South West with flights operated out of Newquay, Exeter and Bristol. Flybe started life in the Channel Islands in the autumn of ’79 with the merger of Intra Airways Jersey and Express Air Services, initially operating aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3 and the Vickers Viscount to link the Channel Islands with mainland Great Britain. 1985 saw the acquisition of Spacegrand, a Blackpool based charter outfit. It was at this point that Exeter became home to Jersey European.

Over the years Flybe has operated a wide variety of aircraft including Douglas DC-3, Vickers Viscount, Handley Page Herald, Fokker F-27, de Havilland Dash-8, BAe 146, Boeing 737-300, Bombardier CRJ200, Embraer ERJ-145, Bombardier Dash-8 Q400, Embraer 175 and Embraer 195.

The company first got involved in franchising with Air France in 1997, operating routes between London Heathrow and Toulouse. In 2008 they took over the Loganair franchise from British Airways, operating a plethora of routes in the highlands and islands of Scotland including connecting Aberdeen and the Shetland Islands in support of the oil and gas industry with Babcock Mission Critical Offshore. This franchise carried on until October 2017 but soon after a new franchise was born with Eastern Airways, renowned for operating the Jetstream 41. This franchise, like Loganair, saw a number of Eastern Aircraft painted up in Flybe livery, however this franchise was set up to directly compete against Loganair who announced shortly after breaking away from Flybe that they would start operating independently for the first time in their existence. Another franchise Flybe commenced during the time of the Loganair franchise was a one with Stobart Air, an Irish registered ATR operator with a base at London Southend Airport. This allowed Flybe to increase its destinations into Europe from the South East of England including the Dutch student town of Groningen which Gary and Matt visited in 2016. Also in 2016 Channel Islands based Blue Islands agreed a franchise with Flybe which saw all of the Blue Islands fleet get a fresh coat of paint into the Flybe purple. This Franchise wasn’t without controversy with the Channel Islands Competition Watchdog asking the airlines to “address the measures and benefits of the franchise deal”.

The beginning of the end can be found all the way back in 2010 with the procurement of Embraer E170 and E190 aircraft following an increase in cash flow after the floatation of the company on the London Stock Exchange. Flybe ordered an initial 35 E170s with options for a further 105 more whilst being the launch customer for the E190 back in 2005, adding 14 of them to their ageing BAe 146 fleet. In 2013 it was said that over 60 of the 158 routes flown by the company were not covering their operating costs and as a result Flybe had to cut 500 jobs. Even with just under half of their routes not covering costs, Flybe decided to open new bases at Cardiff and Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield, along with flights operating to and from London City Airport. Soon after a new livery was revealed with the white and blue going and the purple livery being introduced. However this paint scheme didn’t last long with a new livery planned featuring a white fuselage with the corporate purple represented on the tail but only one airframe was repainted.

Early on in 2018 a lifeline was thought to be coming in the form of a 100% buy by franchise partner Stobart Air. However, management at Flybe rejected this offer and soon after Stobart Air officially withdrew their interest. By the end of the year it emerged that Flybe was in discussion with major long haul carrier, Virgin Atlantic, regarding a potential sale. Early on in 2019 it emerged that Virgin and Stobart had joined forces to form Connect Airways Consortium. Virgin had plans for Flybe to feed passengers in from regional airports to Virgin Atlantic’s main hubs like Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. Plans were set out to initially invest £20,000,000 into Flybe and a further £80,000,000 once the sale had completed. By March 2019 the sale of Flybe to Connect Airways Consortium had been completed. Initial plans suggested that the Flybe fleet would operate under the Virgin Atlantic branding but under the Flybe AOC, however the final plan was to rebrand Flybe as Virgin Connect. Even with the financial backing of Virgin, Flybe were still in trouble and they approached the UK government asking to defer payments on tax debts. The UK government also agreed to review Air Passenger Duty on UK domestic flights, which would have benefited Flybe as they operated 36% of all UK domestic flights, carrying 26% of all UK domestic passengers. On the 5th March 2020 Flybe went into administration and flight operations ceased with immediate effect. Connect Airways Consortium stated that it could no longer commit continued financial support as well as the impact on airline travel due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Report By Matt Sudol, Gary Morris, Simon Fewkes & Kev Slade

© South West Aviation Photographers 2020