Secretary of State urged to save connectivity to Northern Ireland following Flybe collapse

  • Stewart Robson reports from Belfast City Airport

A body representing small businesses in Northern Ireland has written to the Secretary of State expressing concern over the collapse of regional carrier Flybe. The airline, which only made it's return to Belfast City Airport in April 2022 after folding in the height of the Covi-19 pandemic, is now in the hands of administrators.

Flybe operated 10 flights to and from Belfast, and passengers who have booked have been advised not to travel to the airport.

More than 130 jobs in Northern Ireland have also been lost as a result.

The Federation of Small Businesses has urged Chris Heaton-Harris to step in to save vital connectivity to Northern Ireland.

Alan Lowry, the Chair of FSB NI, has said the collapse also highlights the need for UK Connectivity Review Recommendations to be implemented.

  • Read the letter in full below:

Dear Chris

I write to draw your attention to the high level of concern that has been expressed to me by many FSB members over the past 24 hours about the sudden collapse of Flybe.

Unlike almost any other part of the UK, Northern Ireland society is heavily reliant on air connectivity to maintain links with other cities in Scotland, England and Wales. These links are not only vital to business but also to those engaged in studies at universities in GB and to those who travel as part of the endless ebb and flow of social movements between these islands to participate in sport and leisure. Flybe has been to the fore in providing that connectivity, so its sudden collapse for a second time in recent years is of deep concern.

Whilst there will be those who say that Flybe is a private company and that the market must prevail, we do not agree in this regard because of the function it has within our vital infrastructure. In support of this position, I would highlight the Government’s own Union Connectivity Review, produced by Sir Peter Hendy CBE and published in 2021.

In that Review, Sir Peter wrote that there has been “….a lack of attention to connectivity between the nations of the United Kingdom; that the Government’s policies to build back better and for levelling up entail making different, wider strategic cases for transport investment across the country (in line with the Treasury’s latest Green Book revision), and that leaving the EU and its Trans-European Network has created the opportunity to establish UKNET – a strategic transport network for the whole United Kingdom, which, with funding and regular review, can much better serve the overall economic and social needs of the whole of the UK.”

Sir Peter’s report highlighted transport corridors that he believes should be contained within this network and focuses specifically on those that are important for connectivity between the nations of the UK. Importantly, the Report noted that domestic aviation is particularly important for Northern Ireland (and the more northern regions of Scotland) and is also key for connecting to international travel and recognised the need to support domestic routes for which there is not a suitable rail or road alternative. It also made recommendations that, where journeys are too long to be reasonably taken by road or rail, the UK Government should:

  • Revise existing subsidy rules for domestic aviation to allow support for routes between different regions of the UK (rather than just to and from London) and to allow multiple airlines to serve a single route. And:

  • Reduce the rate of domestic aviation tax.

It is of deep concern that neither of these recommendations has yet been acted upon and that Northern Ireland now finds itself being stripped of a vital carrier that plays such a significant role in our daily connectivity with the rest of the UK and beyond. Whilst there is alternative provision to most of the destinations, each is generally provided by a single carrier, with obvious concerns around monopoly provision.

I would urge you to engage as a matter of the highest priority with your colleagues in the Department for Transport and in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to see what role Ministers might play in protecting this service to ensure effective service and competition.

To cite a precedent, we have seen major investment being committed in recent days by UK Government in the steel industry, precisely because of its key strategic role. We would urge that a similar spirit be applied to enable the services that Flybe has delivered to date, and which clearly demonstrate that there is strong demand for inter-city air connectivity from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, to be maintained until such point as another viable commercial operator can step into the role to ensure both service and competition.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Lowry

Policy Chair, FSB Northern Ireland

Now that Flybe has ceased trading, all scheduled flights have been cancelled. It means thousands of passengers will now be looking for alternative plans for their holidays, potentially at short notice. So, what can people do if they've been impacted?

What should passengers do after Flybe ceases trading?

How many people are affected?

Flybe was scheduled to serve 17 destinations across the UK and Europe in 2023, according to aviation data firm Cirium. The airline operated seven daily flights at Heathrow, Britain’s busiest airport, to Amsterdam, Belfast, Newcastle and Newquay Next week, Flybe was scheduled to operate 292 flights, equating to more than 22,700 seats.

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What should I do?

It urged ticket-holders to instead check its website for the latest information.

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What if I booked with a credit card?

If booked directly with Flybe and paid by credit card passengers may be protected under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and should contact their card issuer for further information Those who booked tickets costing more than £100 will be able to claim from their credit card provider.

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What if I booked with a debit card or ticket under £100?

If the tickets were under £100 or booked with a debit card, passengers can try to use chargeback from their bank or card provider.

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I have travel insurance, what should I do?

Passengers should check if their policy includes Scheduled Airline Failure Insurance (SAFI) cover. If travel insurance includes cover, customers should contact their insurer

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What is SAFI?

A policy may simply cover the cost of the original tickets purchased or any unused portion, or the additional cost of purchasing new flights, such as new tickets for travel back to the UK. They type of protection provided may vary depending on the type of policy taken out.

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What if I booked through a third party?

If a passenger did not book directly with Flybe and purchased their tickets through a third party, they should contact their booking or travel agent in the first instance.

They may have provided SAFI as part of the booking.

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Can the government step in?

According to Which?, “very few” passengers flying Flybe will be on Atol protected packages so the government is unlikely to step in and repatriate those abroad or provide refunds.

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What is the Atol scheme?

Atol provides protection to holidaymakers when travel firms collapse.

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What protection does it offer?

If a business collapses while you are on holiday, the scheme will make sure you can finish your holiday and return home. Customers who have not yet left home will be given a refund or replacement holiday.

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Timeline of events as Flybe collapses for the second time in three years:

  • November 2018: Concerns over Exeter-based airline Flybe grow as it puts itself up for sale - citing falling demand, rising fuel costs and the weak pound for £29 million losses.

  • January 2019: A planned takeover by a consortium including Virgin Atlantic is delayed after Flybe fails to meet make-or-break financial terms. The company cannot deliver a promised £20 million bridging loan as banks won't lend them the money amid fears over its future.

  • April 2019: As Flybe continues to try and find the money, it cancels dozens of flights and stops operating from four airports.

  • October 2019: The rescue deal goes through and Flybe is rebranded to Virgin Connect.

  • Jan 2020: The airline's future is in doubt once again after a government report reveals it is at risk of collapse following further losses. Crisis talks are held and shareholders agree to invest extra money amid government assurances to defer some tax payments, but there are complaints from other airlines that this gives Flybe an unfair advantage.

  • March 2020: Crisis talks are held again but fail. The embattled airline collapses with all flights grounded and administrators brought in. The coronavirus pandemic is seen as the final straw as passenger numbers plummet.

  • April 2021: Flybe is bought by Thyme Opco, a company linked to its former shareholder Cyrus Capital. Hopes for the airline's return rise.

  • April 2022: Flybe returns to the skies just over two years after it ceased trading, with a new base in Birmingham.

  • January 2023: Flybe stops trading for a second time and administrators are called in. Passengers are told not to go to airports as all the company's scheduled flights are cancelled.

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