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Madness in the skies across the UK as flight tax cut looms

Brief life: Flybe’s first operation between Birmingham and Belfast in April 2022 (Flybe)
Brief life: Flybe’s first operation between Birmingham and Belfast in April 2022 (Flybe)

Flying the 173 miles from Leeds Bradford to London Heathrow has some point to it if you are in West Yorkshire and need to be at Britain’s busiest airport – for example, to connect to a long-haul flight. But if you are simply trying to get from Leeds to London it is a preposterous notion.

Yet one sunny afternoon last June I paid £44 to do just that. I can’t immediately recall if I was persuaded not to take the train by a rail strike, engineering work or a particularly high fare that afternoon. Anyway, my sole experience of Flybe’s second coming was a professional, punctual and three-quarters-empty flight. The Heathrow handling charges alone must have swallowed up the entire fare revenue from the flight.

Anecdotally, half-filled planes at unfeasibly low fares typified the brief nine-month reincarnation of Flybe before the airline closed down in the early hours of Saturday morning.

You will recall that the original Flybe went bust in March 2020 having lost £100m of investors’ cash in the course of a year. Evidently, one of the partners who pumped money in, Cyrus Capital, regarded Flybe as worth a second chance – I imagine entirely because of its appealing portfolio of slots at Heathrow.

HQ premises were found at Birmingham airport, staff were recruited, a route network was created (then frequently adjusted) and a press release issued promising: “The company will operate flights throughout the UK and EU.”

A maiden flight took place between the two main bases, Birmingham and Belfast City, in April 2022. It was painfully evident that during the 25 months of dormancy, all parts of the previous Flybe network that could turn a profit had been taken over by other carriers. But Flybe 2.0 ploughed on, losing a reported £5m per month until the cash ran out.

The planned end game, I speculate, involved a bigger player paying many tens of millions of pounds for Flybe 2.0 in order to “asset strip” the company – taking over its slots and perhaps some of its staff, but dispensing with much of the network. If that was the intention, it was especially harsh on staff who had taken up their roles in good faith but may right now be feeling like mere pawns in a power play. The value of permission to land at and take off from Heathrow has slumped since Covid, making a slot portfolio with an airline attached a less-attractive purchase.

The 320 employees – almost all of them in Birmingham and Belfast –deserve sympathy, as do passengers who suddenly found their weekend travel plans in disarray. Prospective travellers with future bookings will have to claim the cash back (some banks have refunded within 24 hours) and find alternative flights or trains. These will almost certainly be more expensive than the shareholder-subsidised Flybe fares, and may require use of a different airport: Teesside rather than Newcastle or Birmingham instead of East Midlands.

Yet by summer I predict Flybe will be a distant memory – while domestic flying soars. The government is encouraging a move from train to plane by halving air passenger duty from 1 April.

Environmentally, it is an absurd policy: the leading beneficiaries will be passengers between Edinburgh and London. But it is enough to have lured Ryanair back at scale to UK domestic flying. An April Fools’ Day flight from the Scottish capital to London Stansted is just £15 one way. Just what the planet (as well as train operators LNER and Lumo) did not need. But unlike the wide open spaces of a Flybe flight, you can be sure almost every seat will be filled.