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Flybe collapse: Urgent effort to reopen regional routes

Ministers are working urgently with airlines to try to reopen key regional routes following the collapse of Flybe.

The embattled airline blamed the impact of the coronavirus on flight bookings as it fell into administration overnight, putting 2,400 jobs at risk.

Its failure will leave a huge hole in the schedules of many small airports – some of whom rely almost entirely on Flybe – while the loss of routes threatens to hamper the government’s ambition to “level up” UK regions.

Aviation minister Kelly Tolhurst told MPs that the government “stands ready” to support regional airports affected by the collapse.

“We recognise the impact that this will have on UK airports particularly those which have large-scale Flybe operations,” she said.

“We are urgently working with industry to identify opportunities to fill routes.”

He added that transport ministers were in “close contact with the impacted airports, local authorities and the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] to help understand the impacts on their businesses and local jobs so we can look at how best to support them”.

Scotland’s Loganair, another regional airline, has already committed to maintaining 16 Flybe routes.

Meanwhile, Belfast City airport said it was in talks with multiple airlines to fill the routes vacated by Flybe.

Pilots’ airline Balpa said it had contacted administrators at EY to discuss which parts of the airline could be saved, adding that the airline operated routes which were “not only economically and regionally vital, but profitable”.

But it also accused the government and Flybe’s owners of “betrayal and broken promises”.

The GMB union warned that, in addition to the airline’s staff, the collapse threatened 1,400 jobs in the supply chain.

Flybe crew were in tears after the carrier’s failure.

Chief executive Mark Anderson had emailed them hours before the official announcement to express his “deep feeling of sorrow” – and pointing to the impact of the coronavirus.

Flybe had previously come close to going under earlier this year before last-ditch talks between the government and the airline’s owners resulted in a last-ditch reprieve.

But since then, disagreements over the terms of a £100m taxpayer loan have cast a renewed shadow over its prospects.

A slide in bookings caused by the coronavirus outbreak was blamed for delivering a final blow from which it could not recover.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “We really tried to do everything we could back at the turn of the year but unfortunately though, with the situation that’s developed with coronavirus, an already weak company just hasn’t been able to survive.”

Flybe was the largest independent regional airline in Europe, carrying about eight million passengers a year between 81 airports in the UK and Europe.

It had operated, under various guises, for more than 40 years.

The airline was owned by Connect Airways, a consortium made up of US hedge fund Cyrus Capital, Virgin Atlantic and infrastructure group Stobart.

Stobart said in an update to investors hours after the collapse that Flybe had “shown promising signs of a turnaround”.

“However, despite the best efforts of all, not least the Flybe people, the impact of COVID-19 on Flybe’s trading means that the consortium can no longer commit to continued financial support,” the group said.

Stobart said that over the past 14 months, Connect had invested more than £135m to keep the airline flying, including £25m of the £30m committed as part of its most recent rescue deal in January.

Flybe is said to have requested government support in recent days, to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

But the crisis around the virus came after the company had already asked for a state loan, which appeared to have been rejected.