NEWS that Flybe will withdraw from its Shetland routes after just a matter of months was greeted with a range of responses from locals on Thursday.
The main worry is that flight prices look likely to increase when rival Loganair takes on a monopoly from 8 January and can’t maintain “unsustainable, loss-making” fares which had dropped to combat Flybe.
Others lamented the fact that Flybe didn’t run its service in the summer, as its low base fares could have provided a boost to tourism.
But one thing evident was that the decision to pull out of flying to and from Sumburgh Airport after only launching the service in September didn’t come as a real shock.
Loganair managing director Jonathan Hinkles said from the beginning that there was only room for one airline on the routes, but initially it wasn’t truly clear which side would win the war.
Flybe – alongside new partner operator Eastern Airways – insisted that its model of flying to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow five times a day with low fares would draw in passengers over time.
But when some flights were taking off with as many passengers as staff on board, it was clear something had to give.
Flybe’s Embraer 170 jet brought smoother rides south and quicker flying times than Loganair’s smaller and older Saabs, but its 70-odd capacity plane appeared to seriously misjudge local market demand.
And its decision to run its service using one plane with a half-hour turnover at Sumburgh came under fire for causing knock-on delays and cancellations.
‘We’re not going to recover from this quickly’
The realisation that things perhaps had gone too far for Flybe came following a second public meeting in Lerwick in November, which saw praise for low fares – locals could fly to Aberdeen for just over £30 – but concerns over reliability.
Flybe operated 68 per cent of its flights to and from Sumburgh Airport within 15 minutes of schedule in September and October, while Loganair’s figure was 83 per cent.
“I think we made it clear when we were up in Shetland a couple of weeks back that we would be reviewing the performance of these flights and the schedules, taking into account all of the feedback that we’ve had from not only people at the meeting but from various other communications as well,” said Flybe interim chief commercial officer Ronnie Matheson.
“We published our on time performance number, which was low, and ultimately that’s driven by a number of factors related to the performance in Shetland.
“And then subsequently that’s not giving our passengers confidence in our ability to operate at the high standards that we’d like to operate, and that’s obviously impacted the passenger numbers, which has regrettably led us to the decision that we’re not going to recover from this quickly. So rather than continue to persevere, we decided to withdraw from the route sooner rather than later.”
Matheson said the company expected “a build up of passenger numbers” as people start getting used a new service – but that “clearly hasn’t materialised”.
Flybe missed out on NHS patient travel as the local health board already had a contract in place with Loganair – but that agreement was due to expire in the autumn – while it only recently offered customers free hold baggage.
September disruption ‘set a tone’
Matheson also pointed to a day in early September where an incoming plane had to be diverted back to Aberdeen because it couldn’t land at Sumburgh in the high winds – despite Loganair continuing to run its services.
Creating a knock-on effect, subsequent flights were cancelled and Sumburgh Airport had to stay open longer than usual to accommodate a jet arriving from Edinburgh just after 10pm.
This quickly set a “perception” that dented islanders’ confidence in Flybe and its jets, Matheson said – although he reiterated that the Embraer has the same cross wind limits as the Saab 2000, which Loganair often flies.
“That’s obviously set a tone that people believed that the jet wasn’t the right aircraft,” he said.
“We’ve intimated before that the jet works to the same limits as the Eastern Saab 2000 aircraft and we wouldn’t have put the jet in there if we didn’t think it would have been the right aircraft.”
Travel expert ‘mystified’ by Flybe timing
Simon Calder, who is the travel editor of the Independent, told Shetland News that he was confused that Flybe didn’t launch ahead of the summer and instead started flights in September.
“Competition between airlines has worked brilliantly for Scottish travellers, as well as tourists and business travellers coming to the country,” the travel expert said.
“In most circumstances it cuts fares and stimulates extra trips. But there are limits, and I was mystified by Flybe’s timing, going head-to-head with Loganair at the end of the summer peak and hoping to prosper as demand sank by the day.
“Both airlines will have been financially damaged by the experiment, but I hope that Loganair will also have gained more market knowledge which could see some lower fares remaining.”
Chairman of local transport body ZetTrans Ryan Thomson said Shetland Islands Council’s own research prior to 1 September highlighted space for only one airline.
“The internal studies done by council officers indicated that the deployment of a larger jet on the three routes would stimulate a modest shift from ferry to air,” he said.
“Between Aberdeen and Shetland air is estimated to share 50 per cent of the passenger market and more broadly two thirds of passenger travel from Shetland to the mainland.
“We believed before 1 September the significant increase in volume and fares competition would not be sustainable in the medium or long term.”
Is this the end of Flybe in Shetland? The airline has been flying in the isles since signing a franchise agreement with then-partner Loganair back in 2008, but it looks likely that the long-term is all about Loganair.
“At this stage, I’m not sure how this looks for the future,” Matheson said. “We may review and come back in, but we’re just not in a position to confirm if that’s a definitive thing or not.”
More details on Loganair’s pricing plan for the post-Flybe world, meanwhile, are expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks.