Regional airlines are witnessing something of a renaissance by marketing themselves as a convenient and economical alternative to the major carriers.

SBHD: Regional airlines are witnessing something of a renaissance by marketing themselves as a convenient and economical alternative to the major carriers.

In the past few years there has been a great deal written and spoken about competition among airlines for business travellers. Most effort has concentrated on watching the big boys – whether in Europe or beyond – and weighing up quality, value for money and convenience on premium routes to the US, Far East and Australia.

But even in the midst of the worst recession in aviation history, we need look no further than our own shores to witness the remarkable success enjoyed by UK regional airlines. So what is the key to this success, and how have the regionals managed to buck the trend in the present business climate?

No airlines can match BA as far as advertising budgets are concerned, so the smaller operators have concentrated on creative public relations and direct marketing. They also make an effort to be seen to be providing a service that is convenient and economical, thus ensuring repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations.

“On the whole, regional airlines are very good at satisfying customers’ needs in terms of quality, routes offered and fares,” says a spokesman for Falroaks’ European Regional Airlines Association (ERA). “They have often found it harder to communicate these achievements to the market because advertising funds are scarce. More emphasis is put on marketing support from partners such as regional airports.”

Growth in the number of passengers on regional carriers is approximately double that witnessed by the market as a whole – an increase described as extremely encouraging by ERA director general Mike Ambrose, given the difficult economic climate in Europe. “Even in the middle of one of the worst recessions, regional airlines are able to show strong growth, which proves they are giving travellers what they really want: quality service between the most convenient airports,” he says.

So what is the role of regional airlines? According to ERA, it’s not just about providing a service linking regional points, but also providing link services from regional points to major international gateways and economic centres. In layman’s terms, a regional airline should provide that handy first hop on a longer journey to eliminate the need for time-consuming transit through London.

One myth successfully laid to rest is the image of little jalopies, of uncertain pedigree, arriving and departing when they please, looked after by a quirky and antiquated crew. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Modern regional aircraft are, according to ERA, highly manoeuvrable, high-tech and environmentally friendly mach-ines – both in terms of noise and emission levels. The comfort they offer is comparable to large aircraft, but with economic, operational and maintenance statistics tailored to the resources of regional airlines.

Air UK, just voted best UK domestic carrier in the 1995 Airline of the Year Awards, enjoyed an 18 per cent rise in total network passenger numbers in 1994, compared with the previous year.

Stansted has attracted 28 per cent more travellers over the same period. The award-winning, £400m terminal offers many advantages to the business traveller. Accessibility figures high on the list. The airport’s location, just five minutes from Junction 8 on the M1, provides easy access, while the rail link to Liverpool Street station offers a 41-minute journey time.

“One of our major selling points, particularly from regional airports, is our partnership with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines,” says Air UK marketing director Tony Le Masurier. “Following the launch of our Manchester to Amsterdam service in October last year, we now serve Schiphol from ten UK airports. What makes this especially attractive is the ease of connection to KLM flights worldwide. Schiphol is dedicated to transfer passengers, unlike Heathrow and Gatwick,” he says.

KLM has a 14.9 per cent share in Air UK, whose passengers are able to key in to the Dutch carrier’s highly-regarded frequent flyers scheme.

Another airline flying from Britain to Schiphol – though from a very different stable to Air UK – is Suckling Airways. Founded in 1986 as a tiny operation with just one aircraft and a grass runway, Suckling has in many ways become the standard to which other regional airlines aspire. Suckling business development manager Rex Kingsley says the airline is the fulfilment of a vision by husband and wife Roy and Merlyn Suckling. “He is a highly experienced comm-ercial pilot, with particular expertise in executive travel. She is a trained lawyer with exceptional administrative and inter-personal skills,” says Kingsley.

Suckling’s growth is indicative of the formidable success enjoyed by many regional airlines. A recent 60 per cent increase in annual passenger numbers has allowed the company to purchase new aircraft, with the option to buy the highly rated Dornier 328. The recipe for success is simple, according to Roy Suckling: “Just take generous portions of dedication and focused logic, add a firm base of regular senior business travellers, and mix with time-keeping and reliability.”

The success of regional airlines, whether operating within the UK or to European destinations, has brought about an upturn in the fortunes of many regional airports. For example, a £21m redevelopment has transformed Southampton’s Eastleigh Airport into what it claims is “the most modern regional airport in Europe”. And £40m has just been spent on international departure and arrival facilities at Glasgow airport. At Newcastle, an enlarged check-in area and new international arrivals hall was financed entirely from internal investment.

“Regional airports see themselves as a vital part of the national transport infrastructure, though the Government seems to take a more laid-back attitude,” says Air UK planning director Phil Chapman. “New routes, airline expansion and the establishment of new airlines is good news for any regional airport in terms of investment and extended employment.”

This is a view shared by the Airport Operators Association, the representative body for airports in Britain. Although careful to maintain a responsible attitude to environmental concerns, AOA chairman Terry Lovett rigorously defends airport growth against attacks from environmental groups. “The Council for the Protection of Rural England’s attack on airport growth is based on the flawed belief that rail travel is more environment-friendly than air travel,” he says. “Rail travel uses vast tracts of land, there are high energy costs to pay for the production of steel rail track and providing electrical power for the engines creates pollution at power stations.” Aviation is the most efficient user of land and aircraft manufacturers have made huge strides in the reduction of both noise and pollution from aircraft engines, says Lovett.

On the issue of airport development, Manchester boasts 29 domestic departures – more than any other British airport – as well as 17 long-haul routes and flights to 45 European destinations. Expansion has continued apace. There are now direct rail connections across the north of England and Scotland. Passenger numbers topped 14 million last year, and plans for a second runway are well advanced.

“Our relationship with the Government is good and we spend considerable time and effort lobbying MPs of all parties, and MEPs, to promote our case,” says Manchester’s public relations manager Jane Hibbert.

One significant success at AOA member airport Bristol was the building of a new passenger terminal. This virtually doubled capacity to 2 million passengers a year. And it was immediately given a vote of confidence by Aer Lingus, which has recently introduced a Bristol to Dublin route to connect with transatlantic services. Bristol business travellers are thus free to travel “across the pond” without the need for a London transit, putting them on an equal footing with passengers from the East Midlands, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford – all of which are served by Aer Lingus.

At the lower end of the regional airport scale, but nevertheless equally important in terms of local convenience and transit opportunities, Bourne-mouth offers domestic services to Exeter, Manchester, Humberside, Aberdeen, Gatwick and Stansted. European destinations include Amsterdam, Berne, Paris, Brussels, Hamburg and Dublin. The services are operated by Euro Direct using 18-seat Jetstream 31s and 50-seat ATPs.

Competition for customers among airlines is naturally very keen, and all the signs point to a continued growth in passengers. There has been a great deal of investment for the future, not only from major airports and big league airlines but from many of their smaller counterparts as well. Growing demand for regional routes, both within the Britain and to key European hubs, is certain to put more pressure on airports to upgrade terminal facilities and runway capacity. The challenge is for the industry to keep pace with demand. If it succeeds, then the regional renaissance is sure to continue its boom into the next century.

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