A regional airline, formerly referred to as a commuter airline, is that who provides short-haul travel routes domestically. It has been in recent news that Flybe 2.0 will be returning next year and seeing as it was one of a handful of UK commuters airlines, I think its best we celebrate the return and deliberate its future.
Since Covid infiltrated our lives in 2019, all air travel came to a standstill in the UK, but it was domestic travel that was first to return, due to international travel restrictions. Flybe collapsed in spring 2020 because of Covid, but the question that is on everyone’s mind, is that now with increased business technology, like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, will there be a requirement for regional airlines? The other issue at the forefront of the news is the impact of domestic travel on carbon emissions and global warming. With our European partners turning to train travel is the UK set to do the same?
Zoom is a threat to the regeneration for regional flights, they released that in 2020 alone, their app was downloaded 485 million times. They have also released that in 2020, 3.2 trillion minutes were spent on business meetings. Some believe, long gone are the days of having to commute the country to have a business meeting. To be frank, I can see the financial and environmental benefits to the Zoom solution, it’s cheaper and greener, but unfortunately not the full ticket. Some things cannot be signed over a video call, and after nearly two years of social isolation, more and more people want to get back to social office meetings regardless of the travel.
Some countries in Europe have acknowledged this and have offered a different remedy to people’s desires to travel. In fact, they have gone as far as to ban short-haul internal flights between cities where a train line already exists. Austria was the first European country to enforce this strategy, replacing the Vienna to Salzburg flight with an increased frequency train as a rational step towards reducing global warming. The French lawmakers have also moved forward to ban short-haul domestic flights where alternatives exist. With Germany and Spain now debating whether they should board the train too, the question turns the UK, could HS2 be the beginning of the end of domestic travel?
It is a conversation that has been voiced in parliament but a final decision has not been made yet. The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) called for the government to rid flights where train journeys door to door were less than 5 hours. The charity has also pushed for more exposure of the effects of flying, demanding a mandatory emissions quantity should be attached to each plane ticket. Lately, there have been many ‘staged’ races between aircraft and train between varying cities across the UK, each of which has supplied data to support increased train travel. Even though COP26 was held in the UK, no further comment has been made about the abolishment of domestic travel for train routes. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer even re-iterated that these domestic “flights bring the UK together”.
Other countries have seen a traffic surge in their domestic market. IndiGo claims to be surpassing pre-Covid domestic numbers whilst the USA is practically back to a full recovery with their regional travel. American Airlines and United Airlines have boasted they are both running at about 90% of the 2019 statistics, with some US airlines opting for the larger less efficient aircraft to be used to keep up with demand.
It has been well publicized that Flybe is making a return, and recently re-planted their UK roots securing their Birmingham base. The first plane arrived at Flybe last week and they are planning to increase their fleet to 32 aircraft, using the Dash 8-400 for their operations. Going forward, all eyes are on the potential partnership with Virgin Atlantic to begin code sharing, using Flybe to increase feeder routes for their business travelers.
However, business travel in the UK is trailing further behind other markets and there are worries surrounding its longevity. Loganair’s CEO earlier in the year confirmed “We are looking at a much lower level of business travel. The market will be smaller overall.” Some airlines have noticed that there aren’t as many business travelers as possible, yet that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any business for domestic tourists. EasyJet’s CCO stated, “we launched 19 UK domestic routed since 2019 and our proportion of business traffic was higher during Covid than pre-Covid.”
For now, the government is also encouraging the re-birth of domestic travel in the UK, unlike some of Europe. The 2021 budget have changed UK airline taxes and as a result, they have had a positive knock-on the total price of domestic flights. Domestic Air Passenger Duty (APD) has been cut by 50% for flights departing and arriving in the UK as support to boost regional airports. The government has also pledged to boost regional air travel connectivity with £4.3 million to fund regional links across the country.
Lastly, we must think about the impact these domestic flights are having on the green agenda. Climate change is not new news, and like some European countries, people are pointing fingers at domestic travel to blame for increasing unnecessary pollutants and emissions. Climate change charity, Possible, support the movement of phasing out domestic flights for reliable low emission trains. On the contrary, it must be remembered that airlines are working tirelessly to commit towards greener travel options, such as SAF and carbon offsetting. It is believed that regional airlines have the greatest possibility to convert to other means of fuelling power due to the much shorter flight times, in order to reduce carbon footprints. For example, BA’s “perfect flight” used lower flight levels and a more direct route on their journey to Scotland. Perhaps, domestic travel could be the first to trial nitrogen-electric powered planes in the future.