Why we began an airline throughout a pandemic
(CNN) – 2020 was a precarious year for many airlines. In addition to controlling the safety of employees and passengers, the airlines also steer the avoidance of bankruptcies and layoffs as the pandemic brings global air traffic to a standstill.
With that in mind, nobody would risk starting a new airline.
But you have. Several new airlines have decided to take to the skies during one of the most uncertain times the aviation industry has ever known.
At the beginning of this month, the South African start-up LIFT Airline completed its maiden flight, signaling the start of regular domestic flights in time for the country’s summer season.
Pacifika Air hopes to launch direct services between the cities of Wellington and Christchurch in New Zealand to the Cook Islands in June 2021 after announcing a travel bubble between the destinations.
And Norwegian Air is about to launch in Norway, despite the recent decade’s low-cost success story facing serious financial problems.
In October 2020, Norwegian aviation veteran Erik G. Braathen introduced Flyr, an airline that was founded alongside selected other destinations in Europe for the popular domestic market in Norway.
The airline has not yet completed any flights – Braathen is currently debating which aircraft should be leased in time for take-off in spring / summer 2021 – but there are already 30 employees on the books.
And while the near-term outlook for airlines may be bleak right now, the Flyr team believes they will be ready to capitalize on a niche in the market when the introduction of vaccines reopens the world.
“What if we create an airline based on a 2020 vintage, meaning a low-cost airline based in Norway that is the right size for what we see the market will be forward?” says Braathen.
The new CEO Tonje Wikstrøm Frislid pictured here is running the company on site.
Courtesy of Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen
Braathen is no stranger to airline management. In the 1990s he was CEO of Braathens Airline, a Norwegian airline founded by his grandfather in the 1940s and later merged with SAS in 2004.
He was on the board of Norwegian Air for several years and has hired Tonje Wikstrøm Frislid, another Norwegian veteran, as Flyr’s CEO.
According to Braathen and Wikstrøm Frislid, by re-establishing an airline they can recalibrate the idea of what an airline should offer.
“It is an absolutely unique situation to be able to build a completely new airline with experienced staff. Running an airline with the priorities of safety, punctuality and robustness is quite complex,” Wikstrøm Frislid told CNN Travel.
Braathen adds that his vision is to create an airline based on “very sophisticated and integrated digital systems”.
Flyr wants to make it easy to book a ticket, change the ticket and easily keep track of your flight and all the details related to it.
Creating “modern systems” is key, says Wikstrøm Frislid, arguing that the ability to start from scratch was an advantage over traditional carriers. “It’s a huge investment for an old airline. And for us it’s just one option.”
The airline currently has investments in the planning phase and is looking for further funding to launch next year.
Braathen admits that starting an airline during a pandemic is inherently risky.
“We struggled with uncertainty,” he admits. “We are in a situation that we have obviously never seen before.”
Norwegian Air recently applied for reconstruction under Norwegian law. CEO Jacob Schram said in a statement that the company wants to reduce debt and the size of its aircraft fleet.
Braathen is confident that in six months, when Flyr hits the market, the aviation landscape will be very different.
“What the passenger flow will look like is obviously uncertain, but we’re starting out relatively modestly,” says Braathen. “And then we plan to scale the airline in the next two or three years.”
Pere Suau-Sanchez, a senior lecturer in air traffic management at Cranfield University in England and the Open University in Catalonia in Spain, told CNN Travel that Covid-19 has proven low-cost airlines to be some of the more resilient airlines.
So far, the demand for short haul flights has revived faster than long haul flights and in a country like Norway there will always be a demand for air travel.
Because of Norway’s size and landscape, which is heavily dependent on air traffic, there are over 50 airports across the country.
However, Suau-Sanchez points out that it is currently difficult for any airline to predict the magnitude of future passenger demand, which makes planning difficult.
His comments are confirmed by Robert Mayer, also an air traffic management professor at Cranfield University in the UK, who says that overall reduced passenger numbers could make it difficult for Flyr to board.
“Even in normal times, it’s basically very competitive, but as the number of passengers declines, they’re competing for a smaller piece of the pie, which could be pretty difficult,” Mayer told CNN Travel.
Mayer adds that the lure of cheap airline tickets will always persist, and customers will choose an airline based on low-cost aircraft. However, he says it can be difficult to offer competitively low prices and the low cost European market is already quite saturated.
Mayer is also skeptical of how far a digital-first approach can take an airline, and admits that it’s a good foundation for a business and customer experience:
“Ultimately, you also have to have a physical product, that is the aircraft that transports a passenger from A to B,” he says. “You can’t build a brand or a product simply by saying we’re going to make things completely digital because that’s not really possible.”
Flyr hopes to launch in Norway in the first half of 2021.
Courtesy of Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen
Flyr is currently choosing the aircraft to lease – according to Braathen, it is currently between the Boeing 737-800 or the A320.
“There are a lot of planes,” he says, adding that the pandemic has also brought down prices.
His team also rates what year the planes were built while making the decision.
“We need to make sure that the planes are similar or very similar in their specifications as this increases the technical and operational costs,” says Braathen.
“In terms of age, of course, when they’re a little older than cheaper. So we really have to play the age of the aircraft against the cost of leasing the aircraft.”
It is planned that Flyr will only offer one ticket class. The amenities on board have not yet been 100% confirmed, but Braathen says there will be “a base price for tickets”.
“Passengers have to pay for assigned seats, priority and baggage – you traditionally see that with other low-cost airlines.”
The name Flyr is a Norwegian word and means “to fly”. It was chosen, explains Wikstrøm Frislid, because the airline wants to focus on simplicity.
There is a tab on Flyr’s mint green website where you can register interest in settings. The airline is currently looking for Norwegian cabin crew and pilots, among others.
Flyr has been inundated with interest, says Braathen. He is certain that this has in part to do with the loss of aviation jobs this year.
Looking ahead, Braathen says his ultimate goal is “to create a safe and reliable airline that connects well with our customers and becomes profitable”.
Wikstrøm Frislid adds that setting up the airline on a small scale will make it easier for Flyr to become profitable as profitability does not depend on growth.
She sees the concept as a “great opportunity” – a leap into the unknown, but one that she hopes will pay off.
“It was a really brave idea because it’s a tough industry,” she says. “But I love the industry – and the passion and the energy that is here. And I also see a lot of potential.”