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Citywing - definitely not an Airline

Back in November 2016 I took a flight with Citywing from Blackpool to the Isle of Man. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse before the feature could get into print. So here it is, amended slightly to allow for subsequent events.

When you think about LET 410 operations are your thoughts taken to to places like Eastern Europe and Africa? You would of course be right but somewhere you perhaps might not have thought about is the Isle of Man which lies just off the coast of Great Britain midway between Carlisle and Blackpool.

Based there was a most interesting operation utilising three of these rugged utility aircraft on routes of around 40 minutes / 70 miles.

In January 2013, Isle of Man based company Manx 2’s owner Noel Hayes asked the MD David Buck to find a buyer for the business. David had other ideas as he didn't want to go out and in essence put himself out of a job! He therefore suggested a management buy-out and a deal was put together to do just that with David (as MD) along with two others taking control. However with aviation on the island being as rocky as its coastline, how were the management going to succeed where others had failed?

Manx airlines closed in 2002 after being a franchise airline for BA for last eight years of its 20 year life. Euromanx had been founded shortly before Manx’s demise but unfortunately they lasted just six years, ceasing operations in May 2008.

A symbiotic relationship.

Having already forged a relationship with Van Air Europe in the Manx2 years, management went to the airline and with them created the Citywing brand and operation. David is at pains to point out that that is what Citywing is - “A brand - it is not an airline, the AOC is that of Van Air Europe and whereas each of Citywing’s 65 thousand passengers per year book with and therefore contract with Citywing they are clearly made aware that the aircraft is operated by Van Air Europe.”

David goes on to say that it is “ a symbiotic relationship between the two parties and one that each is actively involved in making successful. Van Air has only the operation of the aircraft to deal as it is paid a flat rate per sector, leaving the marketing and selling of seats to Citywing. This means that Van Air is left to operate and maintain the aircraft and there are generally no surprises for Citywing, extra costs are only incurred if there are delays or diversions outside of Van Airs control.”

Not having an AOC of your own does occasionally have its downside. Citywing were recently contacted to fly a young cancer sufferer to Bristol for surgery. To fly a route you need a permit, to get a permit you need an AOC so being a weekend the process did take some considerable time to organise, however David says “It was the right thing to do” despite him missing the staff Christmas party and the damage caused to his car in the hurry to get the job done!

Van Air were contracted to operate three aircraft for Citywing on its route structure from the Isle of Man serving Blackpool, Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle and Gloucester year round with this service then continuing on to Jersey on Saturdays in the summer. In addition there is a Cardiff to Anglesey service which is actually one that Van Air officially operates. Average sector time for a Citywing flight is around 40 minutes with Citywing’s maximum being one hour or 170 NM with a full payload cruising at around 170kts. Aircraft utilisation is 110 flight hours per month during the summer reducing to 90 in the winter per aircraft.

There are further two aircraft available should one be out of action for an extended period.

Destinations came initially from those Manx2 routes still considered viable with Oxford and Leeds dropped being no longer profitable due to the impact of APD.

In fact APD plays a really big part in the choice of new routes. Should it not be around or significantly cheaper this would have enabled Citywing to offer cheaper flights and at the same time leave more money in the pot for potential future expansion.

Passenger mix was approximately 60% business and 40% leisure with many being regulars. Freight is not really Citywing’s market but the odd piece is taken now and again. It is not something that is being actively considered currently. As David Buck put it “We are not necessarily based at the right place” Aircraft would have to position out to somewhere with a greater freight need to operate such flights and then position back later ready for the next day’s passengers.

Turnover as at 2016 was £6 million with the expectation of making just 1% profit on this figure. It is a tight line between profit and extinction. Competition comes from other carriers and the ferry and fares are determined accordingly. Citywing had hedged its fuel prices since 2015 so as to maintain a supply of fuel at a price it was able to maintain a service with. Although very much providing a service both for the islanders and the island itself it did not receive any subsidies from the Manx government. Some of the routes work around the break-even point but the operation is looked at as a whole. What routes like this did was to give Van Air enough hours overall to make their margin so that the cost for the other routes was kept low enough for Citywing to operate at a profit. This way everybody wins.

In house maintenance

Van Air created an in house engineering and spares department in Citywing’s Ronaldsway hanger situated on the airfield with 2 full time engineers.

Therefore any downtime on the aircraft was not affected by the need to bring in spares nor the personnel to get the aircraft back in service. This proactivity in maintenance made not only make for a good relationship it actively increased the fleets dispatch reliability. Furthermore Van Air are heavily invested in the types future. They are now authorised to make major modifications and provide STC’s for the LET. Two of which are re-engining with the well renowned PT6 and the provision of a glass cockpit. These and others will enable the aircraft to fly on for many years into the future as well as improving reliability and improved fuel consumption.

There is also quite an interesting relationship between governments and their respective aviation bodies. The Isle of Man is within the UK territory but not governed by it, it has its own aviation body and registry which has proved extremely popular with Biz jet operators. Aviation operations are overseen by the UK CAA, however they cannot officially impose anything on the airline, although as the aircraft fly within UK airspace any recommendations would have to be taken very seriously. But of course Van Air Europe is a Czech airline and although the UK CAA does get involved with them this is generally in conjunction with the Czech CAA who also have input into the operation.

Asked why Van Air was chosen to operate flights for Citywing David Buck goes on to say that “ The biggest single reason was that the operation was not only reliable and cost effective but the operator also knows the island and its idiosyncrasies. Van Air crews are aware of the changeable weather and familiarity does help in appreciating any situations that may arise.”

Staff at Citywing all had multiple roles which helped keep costs to a minimum. There were ten on the Isle of Man with a further four at Blackpool. Each day they operated around 20 flights to and from the island. There is no rigid hierarchy and whereas David needed to make the policy decisions each and every member of staff is encouraged to bring ideas to the table.

Being such a small team can also have its advantages. During the quite period in the middle of the day David would often puts the phones onto voicemail and takes the whole team out for lunch, thus giving everyone the chance to talk with each other be it business or pleasure. This can often involved going over to Blackpool to ensure the small team there is kept involved as they could easily have felt somewhat isolated or left out.

On board

On board the flight from Blackpool, which at around 30 minutes flight time is one of the shorter routes, I noticed other areas where the operation was a little different. First of all being the only operator out of Blackpool after its initial closure in October 2014, Citywing had its own building where check in is a relaxed affair but with each piece of luggage being weighed. Passengers were called through in turn for security screening before waiting for the arriving aircraft.

Furthermore the aircraft itself, not a common sight by any means in UK skies, is a small very rugged utilitarian vehicle however it’s very spacious inside and more comfortable for passengers in comparison to other aircraft in its class. That said, each of the aircraft are laid out with 19 seats in a 1x2 layout. Cabin baggage is limited to 6 kilos as there is no overhead storage and limited under seat storage, in fact unless it will fit under the seat hand luggage was taken from each passenger and placed in the hold by the first officer whose job also included the preflight passenger briefing and safety checks. The aircraft had been fitted with a single 32” monitor which played a refreshingly different approach to the safety briefing. Although not perhaps as slick as Air New Zealand’s Lord of the rings theme Citywing chose to have children from local Manx schools deliver the message about the various standard tasks of seatbelt fastening etc. Unfortunately soon after my flight the video was deemed inappropriate as it did not match the demographic of the people that watch it. It seems Hobbits and Orcs can tell us how to behave on an aircraft but not children! On a serious note watching the video and other passengers the I noticed that every single one of them was watching with many having a smile on their faces, it’s not often you see more that the odd passenger looking at the video safety briefing nowadays? Facebook and the news taking preference.

This same screen had another oddity up its sleeve once airborne. The aircraft has to be said is noisy and any attempt at what might be termed standard in-flight entertainment was both difficult to achieve and prohibitively costly. So Citywing got round these difficulties by showing silent movie classics from the early 1900’s As flight time is on average 40 minutes (BPL - IOM being 30) this is more than adequate for its route structure and no need to remove your earplugs.

Storm Doris

At the time of my flight Citywings future was one of consolidation with a very risk averse outlook. There were no plans for any additional routes barring a third party approaching and guaranteeing against any losses. As David Buck put it “We work from a position of no business risk, however if someone came with a proposition we would certainly look at it” In real terms this would have meant that the proposer, more likely as not an airport, would have to take the risk and underpin the service, providing any launch capital.

The company felt itself as part of the tight knit Island community working with nominated charities. In fact during my visit a new contact was created with the Manx Aviation and Military Museum adjacent to the airport.

However February 23, 2017 was a challenging day for the UK aviation industry and a deadly one for Citywing. An incident which occurred whilst Van Air attempted to make the service to Belfast that day led to the UK CAA removing their route permit the following day.. This in turn left Citywing with no way to transport its passengers. After two weeks of sub chartering aircraft the pressures on Citywing finances simply overwhelmed them and the decision was made to place the company into liquidation with all flights being cancelled from March 11, 2017

The island is still without an airline it can call its own and it is difficult to see just how one could be established again in the future. Its a great shame given the one history of aviation on the island, I for one sincerely hope I am wrong in my future predictions.

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