Regional Ambitions

May 15, 2018

Regional Ambitions

 

BA Cityflyer having reached its tenth anniversary is not resting on its laurels and is looking very much to the future. I flew with the airline on one of its new routes to find out more about this subsidiary of the UK flag carrier.

 

British Airways Cityflyer (BACF) was formed in 2007 after the sale of the parent companies regional business, BA Connect, to Flybe in March 2007.

However, BA regional operations stretch back much further than this. In 1991 in an attempt to expand outside of its Ronaldsway base, Manx Airlines formed Manx Airlines Europe. Three years later the carrier became a franchise partner for BA and subsequently changed its name in 1996 to British Regional airlines. From its headquarters at Manchester, in addition to operating bases at Belfast, Glasgow Cardiff, Southampton, Edinburgh and Inverness, its fleet of Embraer ERJ135/145 and BAe ATP, Jetstream 41 and 146-200 in addition to four klmUK leased ATR72’s, served the UK regions until 2003 when it was purchased outright along with Manx Airlines and subsequently both being merged with British Airways Regional and Brymon, the latter having been purchased by BA in 1993 following the failure of Brymon European Airlines. The resulting entity was called British Airways CitiExpress.

 

Due to the merger of these different operations the combined fleet was quite diverse with BAe 146-100, 200, 300 and RJ100, ATP, J41, de havilland Dash 8 and Embraer ERJ145. Some of these aircraft were subsequently painted with British Airways Express titles along with the Landor livery.

In 2006 the airline had another name change along with a change in service. Due to continuing losses with the regional routes and in the hope that a new way of working and a rebrand would stem or even reverse these losses. BA Connect was created. Connect moved slightly towards the low-cost model we see in operation with many of today's airlines in that food was now available to buy on board, although this did not include London City Airport (LCY) services. Allocated seating and baggage were still included as was lounge access, tier points and BA miles for those in the BA Executive Club.

 

The airline operated a considerable number of BA’s domestic and European routes that did not involve Heathrow (with just a small number of routes out of Gatwick). In total 17 airports in the UK and Ireland served 63 routes.

However, losses continued to mount and in March of 2007 flybe took over the majority of Connect operations along with a payment reputed to be around £130m to mitigate the losses the new owners would be making at the time of the transfer.

 
 
A new beginning

The flybe deal did not involve the profitable LCY operations and ten Avro RJ100’s (of which eight were in service at any one time leaving two to fill in when reliability issues occurred) were also kept to maintain the 144 flights a week to six destinations the new airline, BA Cityflyer (BACF), would operate from the Docklands airport with 278 staff. These initial destinations were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Zurich, Frankfurt, Madrid and Milan. The very first flight departed on March 30, bound for Paris and Frankfurt.

Within a month weekly flights had increased to 250 with the first year of operations seeing 600,000 passengers use these predominantly business services.

The different regional entities had always been based and headquartered in Manchester, however, with all routes now emanating from LCY this naturally became the airlines operating base, although the administrative headquarters remained in Didsbury near Manchester where it still resides today. 

London City was chosen as it has a uniquely geographic advantage, sitting at the heart of what is arguably one of the most important financial centres in the world. Additionally, Canary Wharf and the general Docklands/East London area is now the home of many thousands of people including many of BA’s key business accounts. All of whom eager to avoid the trip to, and through, other London airports be it for business or leisure. BACF claim that the kerbside to airside time at LCY is a mere 20 minutes. 

 

In 2008 two wet-leased Flightline 146 were introduced alongside two RJ85 new to the airline (the latter being chosen for its longer range).

September 2009, however, saw the introduction of brand new Embraer 170s and 190s providing a much more modern and fuel-efficient fleet. The BAe fleet was beginning to show their age and with four engines the fuel economy could not compete with the newer generation of regional airliners. These new Embraers gave the airline better range and payloads, particularly important given the shortness of the runway at LCY.

The ERJ 190’s are limited to 98 seats due to the BA Pilot SCOPE restriction of fewer than 100 seats, however, it would be difficult to operate with the aircraft maximum of 114 due to weight restrictions created by the runway length.

The aircraft is still profitable to operate at 98 sets and has the added advantage to the passenger of producing a 34-inch seat pitch because of it.

From its launch, LCY was a major focus for CityFlyer, initially to business destinations given its popularity with customers, ease of use and its location. 

In 2010, partly due the increased performance from the Embraers and in a huge departure from the airlines previous focus, the first leisure routes were introduced to the Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Majorca and having proved the sceptics wrong to become popular with customers they are now year-round services alongside a full schedule of what the airline sees as important business routes from LCY.

 

 

 

 

Over the following years, the proportion of leisure passengers increased dramatically with services added to such places as Menorca, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam and Granada making BACF the only airline to operate there from the UK. The expansion was not limited to leisure routes with the likes of Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Aberdeen and Dublin added to the growing network.

In May 2016 British Airways, as BA CityFlyer, started flying from Stansted Airport for the first time, initially as a summer-only operation with flights to Berlin, Faro, Ibiza, Malaga and Palma. But in August that year announced it was continuing to operate year-round from Stansted with winter flights to the popular French ski destination of Chambery and the continuation of the Berlin service.

BA CityFlyer is a wholly owned British Airways’ subsidiary and as such part of the IAG group but it has its own Leadership Team under managing director Adam Carson, and operating as a separate accounting entity with a certain amount of autonomy when it comes to how the airline should be run.

The need for it to be this separate entity is due to the requirement for a lower cost base to make a return on these types of services. It is no different to many other large European flag carriers in this. For example, Air France has its hop! division, KLM has Cityhopper and Lufthansa’s Cityline. All operating similar aircraft. 

It is always marketed as British Airways, however, and not as BA CityFlyer. Aircraft carry the current full BA livery with additional ‘Operated by BA Cityflyer” titles under the cockpit window area.

Customers enjoy the full British Airways’ product on board, Eurotraveller and Club Europe cabins, two abreast seating so everyone has an aisle or window seat, and the opportunity to earn Avios points.

 

Current Operations

 

2017 found the airline celebrating ten years of operations from London City, itself celebrating its 30th anniversary year. Staff numbers have increased to almost double with over 500 at both the London City operating base and the HQ in Manchester as well as a small second crew base at Edinburgh, Scotland. Passenger numbers have more than quadrupled making the airline the biggest operator in terms of routes, customers and aircraft movements from London City. In total, during the summer of 2017, the airline served 54 destinations from various regional airports in addition to LCY.

To serve these growing numbers the fleet has increased to 14 ERJ190 and six ERJ170 in addition to a wet-leased Eastern Airways Saab 2000 to predominantly serve the Isle of Man as well as a predominantly summer leased ERJ170, used mostly to add frequency to existing services.

Declan Collier, CEO of London City Airport, said: “Over the last decade, BA CityFlyer has grown its fleet considerably and become our largest airline customer, offering great service and a growing route network that continues to be widely praised by our passengers.”

 

The airline has always focussed its business efforts on offering customers a schedule that enabled them to do a full business day in some of Europe’s major cities with a same-day return option.

This year has seen it expand much more into the leisure market, serving some of the more popular sunshine destinations from not only the City airport but, due partially to the requirement for it to close from 12:00 on a Saturday to 12:00 on Sunday, the UK regions as well and with headline fares not that much higher than the low cost big boys.

These new routes include summer-only direct flights from Manchester to Alicante, Malaga, Ibiza and Palma, Mykonos, Nice and a weekly service to London City Airport.

The airline also started flying from Birmingham and Bristol airports again with the launch of four new summer-only routes to Malaga, Ibiza, Palma and Florence. British Airways last flew from Birmingham and Bristol in 2007 when the regional airline business was sold to flybe.

Stansted services have also been both renewed and increased with three new summer-only destinations (Florence, Geneva and Nice) and increased frequency on two existing routes with Malaga and Faro resuming for the summer.

 

 

Aircraft used from regional airports generally leave LCY for various destinations on Friday evening and then return to the regions ready for service the following day. The exception to this being Manchester (MAN) which arrives on a Thursday but which also operates a service between LCY and MAN. The opposite then happens once the aircraft has made the last flight from the regions.

 

Back at base, Paris (Orly), Prague, Milan and Skiathos have all been added last year (2017). The first due to mainline BA stopping service, however, the others are in addition to mainline services from Heathrow.

Once the summer season finished the airline used some of the freed up capacity on flights to Salzburg in Austria and Chambery in France, gateways to some of Europe’s top ski resorts, from MAN every Saturday from December through to March. In addition, the airline has recently introduced a weekly service to Reykjavik (Keflavik), underlining its commitment to leisure routes throughout the year.

CityFlyer has moved further into the leisure market as it also flies for tour operators, predominantly from Scotland, where the airline is contracted for a period of time to work particular routes. Although the in-flight service is buy on board to fit in with the relevant companies norm the aircraft are not physically changed in any way and passengers can enjoy the same levels of comfort as they would on a BA service.

BACF currently employs 215 Pilots (104 Captains and 111 First Officers) to fly it’s routes and is actively seeking more. 15% of the existing flight crew are female, eight of whom are Captains.

 

Onboard experience

 

It was the new Manchester to Ibiza route that the author took to see the airline at first hand.

Ibiza is also served from Birmingham, Bristol and London City.

Manchester has also benefitted from these new routes as to enable services from there has resulted in a flight to and from London City providing a somewhat limited, link with the Docklands airport and, for its passengers, the nearby City of London. This also means that it is possible to transit through London City to or from your eventual destination thereby giving more flexibility.

Adam Carson, BA CityFlyer’s managing director said: “The 10-year anniversary is a significant milestone for us. Initially, a business-based airline we listened to what our customers told us and moved into leisure flying as well, reaching a whole new market but at the same time expanding our core business network.”

The author took the outbound direct service BA7315 from Manchester to Ibiza aboard an Embraer 190, G-LCYW. Even though the flight was over two and a quarter hours the journey was really quite comfortable. Of the 98 seats (38 Club Europe / 60 Economy) on board, nearly all were taken with passengers seated in a leather chair enjoying the ample 34in seat pitch throughout the aircraft's two cabins. 
 

 


 

 

 

           

 

 

Food and drink is buy on board in Eurotraveller but remains complimentary in the Club World business cabin.

The atmosphere on board was also very pleasant with the two crew finding time to talk with passengers and not rushing around selling various items. In fact, the crew on the author's flight explained how they had both moved from the mainline carrier to Cityflyer due to the real family feel of the airline and how they felt very much more at home there.

BA services at Ibiza operate from a remote stand so require a bus transfer from and to the aircraft, however, the transit time was not lengthy either on arrival or departure.

On the authors return the flight routed through London City. This gave the opportunity to sample both the airport's unique approach and a domestic service.

Although feeling somewhat cheated as the arrival was on R27 meaning no steep approach over the City, the departure was off the same runway meaning a interesting take off made all the more obvious by the angle at which the galley curtain hung before going back to a more ‘normal’ rate of climb once the skyscrapers in the Canary Wharf area were behind the aircraft. 

Both aircraft and Flight crew are required to have a rating for LCY given its particularly steep approach and take off. Aircraft when landing over the City of London and Canary Wharf will pick up the 5.5-degree glide slope at DME 3.4 and must not be below 1500 before DME 2.5 is reached

The service on board flight BA7310 was exactly the same as the European leg despite there being just 45 minutes in the air and a full flight.

The Manchester service is as a direct result of the European services out of these airports as it is essentially a repositioning flight taking the aircraft out to operate the service or back to London city once it has returned. This does mean that they are not exactly designed for a days business in either destination. Aircraft operating from all other airports are repositioned empty as required.
 

Future plans

I went to BA CityFlyer head office in Didsbury Manchester to talk with Luke Hayhoe, General Manager Commercial & Customer about the airline's future plans.

The airline is able to pretty much set its own destiny so long as it brings in the required return for the group and what it does do does not negatively affect the parent either.

“We have a reasonable autonomy but need to work in harmony with the greater BA/IAG”, said Mr Hayhoe.

 

 The airline is in reality inextricably linked with LCY and that airports customers, when asked if he thought BA CityFlyer would exist without LCY Mr Hayhoe said not.

Exist it does and situated in East London, which is the biggest development area in the whole of London, the airline has plans for the future alongside the airports plans to increase from 4.5m passengers currently to 6.5m by 2025 This will be achieved by creating an extension to the existing terminal alongside a refurbishment of the old and the addition of more parking stands which will also be larger to handle the next generation of regional jets.

The airline has a five-year plan, in line with the rest of BA, which aims at growth both at LCY and in the regions. To cope with its expansion as all of its aircraft were fully committed in 2017 the airline acquired a further ERJ190 in January from Azul with a second expected from Cobham Aviation Australia in April. One aircraft is slated for the new Prague and Orly routes with the other expected to increase services to Frankfurt and Milan Linate.

In 2018 the airline expects to be operating 63 routes, an increase of nearly 20% on 2017, with approximately 50% of these from LCY. In fact, BACF has 53% of the slots and 60% of the total number of passengers from LCY.

The airline has been growing ever since its inception and to continue this it needs to increase outside of LCY despite the airport's growth plans, due to the restricted opening hours. It will also need to start the process to decide what are its aircraft requirements to do this and according to Mr Hayhoe the airline is to “Review future fleet plans in the near future, including growth opportunities.” 

Although the airline is pushing further into the leisure market around the country, its fortunes are likely to be tied closely with those of London City Airport and with both planning for future growth it seems clear that BA CityFlyer, unlike its predecessors, has bright prospects.

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