Is public ownership the solution to regional connectivity in the UK? Public ownership seems to be a topic that was hot on the agenda around the time of the 2019 General Election, with Labour promising to bring the railways back under government control. Since the election ‘regional connectivity’ has become a new buzz word. With a Conservative government in power having won a large majority, partly due to capturing swathes of historic Labour seats. Regional connectivity has to be a hot topic, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said many times, the country needs ‘leveling up’ across all regions. This is a commitment the new government have made to the British people. But how can this be achieved?
In a sign of the Prime Minister’s commitment to levelling up all regions of the UK, the government has announced additional measures to support regional connectivity across the UK, to ensure all corners of the country drive the economy, and fully benefit from prosperity in years to come.
By now we are all well aware of HS2, a rail network connecting the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ with London. The first stage of which will connect the West Midlands to the Capital is scheduled to be open in 2028 with phase 2 to be complete by 2035. This certainly doesn’t feel like an immediate solution to regional connectivity and connecting Leeds, Manchester and the West Midlands to London doesn’t sound like leveling up all nations of the United Kingdom.
If only there was a solution to this problem that is already established and ‘ready to go’? There is, or at least there was until 5th March this year – regional aviation, specifically the network and infrastructure of Flybe. Flybe offered vital transport links, many of which were not served by any other mode of transport let alone another airline. Links between places like the Isle of Man and Liverpool, which was a lifeline for the NHS, between Belfast City and many UK cities, used by business across the UK and finally Newquay to London, a route which would otherwise take over 5 hours making a day trip impossible. It is obvious that beyond the aviation sector these transport links do not exist and are not likely to exist in the near future. Of Flybe’s 12 million+ passengers per annum, 50% were business passengers, 80% of passengers flew within the UK and approximately 75% were regular travelers. Many million meetings, appointments, contract signings or approvals that will now, without Flybe, be much more difficult to achieve, all at a time when they are needed most. In a country experiencing social isolation the desire for face to face meetings with colleagues, friends and family will create more demand for the regional aviation market. Some airlines have stepped in, but the number of connections is small, frequency is very low and at grossly inflated prices. Furthermore, many of these carriers have announced these routes have been placed ‘on hold’ indefinitely raising the question, will these routes ever be restarted?
Cornish holiday resort Newquay, for one, has no direct rail services from London for much of the year and the journey takes about five hours. But Flybe could get you from London Heathrow to Newquay airport in little more than an hour. Flybe was due to re-route its Newquay flights to Gatwick at the end of this month, but that plan has now fallen victim to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on demand for air travel. If you live in the Isle of Man, Flybe’s service has literally been a lifeline. The airline had a contract with the government to transfer NHS patients from the island to medical facilities in Liverpool when they required treatment that could not be provided closer to home. At the moment, it is unclear what will happen to that service.
What about the financial viability of a regional carrier like Flybe? It is no secret that regional aviation isn’t the most profitable area of the aviation sector, which is why Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes exist. Across Europe, many PSO routes exist to provide a crucial lifeline to communities that rely on connectivity that wouldn’t necessarily be financially appealing to the larger carriers. In the UK these routes are few and far between leaving regional airlines such as Flybe, Loganair and Eastern Airways footing the bill. Surely this has to change in order to ‘level up the country’? Beyond the use of PSO routes, a regional carrier must have a strong business plan, supported by identity to keep up with the larger carriers such as easyJet or Ryanair. Flybe had this and was certainly on the road to delivering a turnaround strategy with a strong business plan which had gained support from the company shareholders and many senior civil servants working directly with the government. This business is viable, it will succeed, and it is crucial to the UK’s success over the coming months and years. With all of the factors discussed above, it would appear that this is the perfect business to be brought under government control and into public ownership. A national airline that supports the vision of government whilst providing vital support to all communities of the UK, not run by billionaires looking to make a quick profit but to provide a truly viable source of regional connectivity, without an agenda that would level up the country.
It wouldn’t be fair to have this conversation without mentioning the environmental impact of the aviation industry, which is such a hot topic at the moment. This is where the Dash 8 Q400 aircraft sits in a league of its own. The aircraft has 50% less CO2 emissions than the latest jet aircraft, 30% lower fuel burn than a regional jet and is between 30% and 50% quieter than a jet aircraft on take-off. This really is an aircraft that is perfect for the regional aviation market whilst providing fuel efficiency to drive prices down and lower emissions than its rival jet aircraft to help reduce the environmental impact of the industry.
With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc around the UK the true impact of Flybe’s collapse has not really been felt, however, it is likely to felt across the country with widespread job losses, not only for the 2000 plus staff employed by Flybe but also at airports nationwide. Let us now, however, look to the future and brighter times once we have as a nation, triumphed over Covid-19. There will be much rebuilding work that has to be done, both socially and economically. The government finances will need all the help they can to recover. This is where business must play its part, however, UK business will be trying to achieve this with one hand tied behind it’s back. There will be a need and demand for connectivity across the UK to provide vital transport links to communities that are currently unserved.
Written by Paul Green former Flybe FO