Europe’s winter airline schedules launched last week. The optimism of this time last year, when an unprecedented number of new routes started across Europe, is eclipsed by nervousness among European air carriers. Network planners are generally apprehensive about uncertainties over fuel prices and levels of future demand. Double-dip recessions are not good for business.
So caution is the watchword in the 2011-2012 winter timetables. Yet two carriers, Flybe and Vueling, are bucking the prevailing cautionary trend as they assertively pioneer new markets.
Vueling in France
The development of Spanish carrier Vueling has been far from smooth. The airline earlier cut its French connections, dropping its Paris base, but has this year returned to the French market with a new base in Toulouse. It launched eight routes from the city in April 2011, and further increased its commitment to France last month with a new daily flight from Toulouse to Lille and return — a route aimed very much at the business market.
Last week, Vueling launched another prime business route, this one from Paris to Zürich where they are challenging established carriers Swiss and Air France.
Spain to Germany and Wales
Second-tier low-cost carriers in Europe have not always had great success in maintaining bases outside their home country — remember Norwegian’s effort in Warsaw from 2006 to 2010. So Vueling’s second bite at the French cherry is being monitored with interest by many industry analysts.
The airline’s current confident mood is reflected in another new route launched last week: Madrid to Berlin. And Vueling has announced a raft of new routes for spring 2012, among them its first link from its principal base in Barcelona to the UK, when a thrice-weekly Barcelona to Cardiff service will start.
Flybe goes Nordic
Finland is the stage for the most intriguing development in the winter schedules. From October 30 air services to, from and within Finland previously operated by Finncomm were taken over by Flybe. This new Scandinavian venture for Flybe starts with a network of some two dozen routes and is already adding more.
This is a big step for Flybe, which has come a long way since it was a minor regional carrier flying under the name Jersey European Airways. It morphed into British European in 2000, from where it was but a short step two years later to become Flybe.
Over the last ten years Flybe has partnered with Scottish carrier Loganair to take over most of the air routes linking the Scottish mainland with island airports in the Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetland Isles. Last week it added beautiful Donegal to its portfolio, with new services linking the airport at Carrickfinn (on the coast of Donegal, Republic of Ireland) with Dublin and Glasgow.
Serving minor airports
Flybe has thus established a reputation for reliably serving minor airports in some of Europe’s remotest areas. They fly into unusual spots like Barra (where planes still land on the beach) and, through their new Nordic operation, into Mariehamn in the Åland Islands and a number of small airfields in the far north of Finland.
At the moment there is a distinctive gap between the two halves of the Flybe network. Flybe flies out of Finland to airports as far west as Trondheim (Norway) and Gdansk (Poland). And their UK-based aircraft fly as far east as Hamburg and (in the summer months only) Bergen. The latter is itself an interesting route: from Inverness (in northern Scotland) to Bergen with two stops along the way.
Would that Flybe might plug the gap between the two halves of its network, for even we — reluctant fliers though we are — might be tempted to the skies. We quite fancy the idea of being able to fly with entrepreneurial Flybe all the way from Kuusamo to Kirkwall, Enontekiö to Exeter or Savonlinna to Sumburgh.